What we can expect from 2021: The big technological trends continue

2020 was also an extraordinary year for science. Like for most of us, the Covid virus kept researchers worldwide on their toes, too. An unprecedented amount of scientific resource was directed to the study of Sars-CoV-2 to better understand the virus, its spread, its damage in the human body and, last but not least, ways to fight it. 87,000 entries for the keyword „Covid-19“ can be found in the 2020 medical publication databases. And all this work resulted in a no less extraordinary success: the development of a vaccine against the Corona virus is nothing less than one of the greatest triumphs of science in recent years. And this in a year of loudly articulated skepticism and hostility towards science in illiberal and right-wing populist circles, from the Trump administration and the German AfD to large parts of the Swiss SVP, led by its protagonist Roger Köppel.

What can we expect from the sciences this year in terms of new technological developments? We want to highlight five important technologies and scientific research areas that could potentially make significant progress in 2021.

I. Artificial Intelligence:

Today, artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer limited to the specific purpose for which it was created, such as playing chess, searching databases or recognizing faces. The learning and optimization methods underlying today’s AI, so-called „deep learning“, enable a massive machine intelligence increase across the board. This also affects more and more areas that most people today still regard as unchallengeable domains of human ability: intuition, creativity, or sensing other people’s emotions. The latter in particular will probably already be a standard capability of AI systems in the next few years. AI programmers speak of „affective computing.“ Will machines soon be able to recognize our emotions better than other humans do?

In socio-political and global political terms, the further development of AI is of great significance: the country with the most advanced AI is very likely to become the dominant economic and military power on this planet. Currently, two countries are vying for global AI supremacy: the US and China. China has caught up strongly in the last few years and is now even aiming to leapfrog to first place. The Europeans have long since been left behind in this race and relegated to the status of extras. The basis of the Americans‘ and Chinese‘ lead is not smarter researchers, better AI algorithms or better computer programmers, but simply the availability of data. Data is considered „the oil of the 21st century.“

Thus, more and more a world of total networking is developing, in which our privacy threatens to disappear. With the appropriate software for face and image recognition and a dense network of cameras, the creation of movement profiles of individual people in real time has long since ceased to be a problem. What will be in store for us if there is no democratic control of the state, and how far completely uncontrolled manipulative data use and the feeding of AI algorithms can go, is shown by the example of China. We should be on our guard also in 2021.

II. Quantum computing:

For a long time, quantum computers were the stuff of science fiction. The term alone seems to most people as eerily bizarre as excitingly futuristic, combining the technological omnipotence of digital computing with the awe-inspiring complexity and abstractness of the most important physical theory of the 20th century. But in today’s reality, the development of quantum computing promises a new technological revolution that could shape the 21st century in much the same way that the development of digital circuits did for the 20th century. Back in the fall of 2019, Google announced that its engineers had succeeded in constructing a quantum computer that could, for the first time, solve a problem that any conventional computer would cut its teeth on. This was still more of a symbolic milestone, as the problem was still of a highly academic nature. But as early as 2021, we could witness a new Sputnik moment in information technology, in the form of a quantum processor with more than 100 qubits that achieves true quantum superiority. This in turn could dramatically impact five different fields:

  1. Cryptography: Today’s common ciphers are based on the re-factorization of the products of two very large prime numbers. Above a certain number size, this task can no longer be solved by a classical computer. A quantum computer could do this in minutes.
  2. Solving complex optimization tasks: The task of finding the optimal solution from many variants is considered particularly tricky among mathematicians. Such problems arise in industrial logistics, in the design of microchips or in the optimization of traffic flows. Even with a small number of variants, classical computers drop out when asked to calculate optimal solutions. Quantum computers, on the other hand, could solve such optimization problems in a comparatively short time.
  3. Artificial intelligence: The „deep neural networks“ used here involve hard combinatorial optimization problems that can be solved far faster and better by quantum computers than by classical computers.
  4. Searching in large databases: When searching unsorted data sets, a classical computer must consider each data point individually. The search duration therefore increases linearly with the number of data points and thus quickly becomes too large for a classical computer in increasingly large data sets. With a quantum computer, the search duration would only follow a root law. Instead of taking a thousand times as long for a billion data entries as it does for a million, a quantum computer would only take slightly more than 30 times as long – a breathtaking improvement in the case of very large numbers.
  5. Finding new chemical compounds: Complex optimization problems also arise repeatedly in the simulation of quantum systems, where the task is to find the best possible, i.e. most energetically favorable, configuration of electrons in complex molecules or atomic assemblies among many alternatives. The corresponding quantum equations are too difficult for conventional computers. Quantum computers, on the other hand, could directly map the behavior of the electrons involved, since they themselves behave like a quantum system. The resulting better understanding of molecules and the details of their chemical reactions could be used, for example, to develop new drugs or far more efficient battery technologies.

Here, too, Europe must catch up with the progress made by the USA and, increasingly, by China.

III. Nuclear Fusion:

Meanwhile, without much public attention, scientists are making progress in an area that could solve the problems of global energy supply once and for all: the peaceful use of nuclear fusion. At stake is nothing less than the dream of capturing unlimited, clean and safe energy from the thermonuclear fusion of atomic nuclei, the same energy that powers our sun and stars.

In addition to the mammoth ITER project in Cadarache, France, which is being funded with massive amounts of public money and is expected to produce its first results from 2030 onwards, a number of privately financed companies have also devoted themselves to fusion research. However, they are taking a different approach than the ITER researchers. With alternative and much smaller reactor technologies, they want to generate electricity from fusion already in the next few years, and thus much earlier than ITER. A public-private race is brewing to find the best solution for fusion technology.

If we were actually able one day to produce energy like the sun and thus give ourselves access to the most efficient, safest and environmentally friendly form of energy that nature has to offer, this would certainly not only be another major technological advance, but rather a leap forward in civilization that would be on a par with the invention of the steam engine, which 250 years ago gave us the energy to completely transform our society. So it is surley worth keeping an eye on the interim results from this race in 2021 as well.

IV. Genetics in medicine:

The success in developing the vaccine against the Corona virus is based on immense progress in genetic engineering of recent years. Such „genetic vaccines“ contain the genetic information of the pathogen, which after administration is translated by the body’s own cells into corresponding proteins, whereupon as in a real viral infection a defense reaction of the immune system is triggered.

However, genetic engineering processes are not only being developed for vaccines against infectious diseases, but also in the fight against cancer. Here, too, encouraging results are emerging. For example, research has long been conducted on cell vaccines in which the mRNA sequence in the vaccine is designed to encode cancer-specific antigens. There are already more than 50 clinical trials for mRNA vaccines for a range of cancers, including blood cancers, melanoma, glioblastoma (brain tumor) and prostate cancer. So it could well be that the Covid-19 pandemic will be the initial step in  a broad breakthrough in the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases through genetic vaccines and patient-specific medicines.

But the most important bio-medical and genetic engineering breakthrough of this century remains CRISPR. This genetic engineering process, which is just eight years old, could make scenarios such as the definitive cure for cancer a reality much more quickly than even the greatest optimists among genetic engineers thought possible just 10 years ago. The technology has long since been used in practice, particularly in the modification of the genetic makeup of plants. But CRISPR is also entering a new phase in the use in animals and humans. Direct interventions in the human genome are no longer a problem today, technically speaking. For some medical applications, the technology has already progressed to the stage of clinical trials. This will revolutionize the treatment of many hereditary diseases previously considered incurable, caused by genetic defects, as well as plagues of humanity such as HIV, malaria or even diabetes, cancer and other age-related diseases. On the other hand, the enormous potential of CRISPR has also triggered new ethical debates (and exacerbated old ones) and will continue to generate much controversy in 2021.

V. Internet of things

We have already become accustomed to numerous digital everyday helpers, from the app that informs us in real time about train delays, the electronic measurement of the steps we have walked, to Tinder, which displays contemporaries in the immediate vicinity who are willing to mate. We are also familiar with the refrigerator that automatically reorders groceries. But what about

… an umbrella that flashes when rain is forecasted, attracting the attention of the person who wants to go out of the house.

… a wallet that becomes increasingly difficult to open the lower the credit card balance.

These helpers are also no longer a technological problem today. With increasing computing capacity, faster networking through ultra-fast mobile Internet and ever smarter data processing, the development of such „smart things“ will continue apace. Already in 2019, 5G was switched on, enabling breathtaking speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second. This network will continue to be expanded globally in 2021. To achieve what we want, we no longer need to use a computer; everyday things will take care of themselves without our direct intervention.

The fact is: Our world is changing faster and faster. In his 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes a society in which people are sorted into different castes at birth by means of biotechnological manipulation, and at the same time have all their desires, cravings and appetites immediately satisfied by permanent consumption, sex and the happiness drug soma. The novel will be familiar to most readers in its basic outline. Less well known is the year in which Huxley sets his action. It is the year 2540 A.D., more than 600 years after the novel was published! Even the visionary Huxley could not have imagined that the real technological possibilities could not only reach this scenario after only one century, but could far outshine it. Technological developments will continue to accelerate in 2021.

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