Tech Themes for 2021

2020 was such an unpredictable year, but hopefully 2021 will be much better. In terms of the big themes for technology, here are my thoughts on what is likely to be on our collective minds over the next year.

Regulation,  Regulation, Regulation

The Internet is about to get more regulated, and it’s long overdue. Whether it will be done right is still to be seen. Recent attempts (such as EU cookie banners) have missed the mark and not achieved anything except ruining the web experience for everyone. The UK Government is set to introduce an “online harms” bill which, on the face of it looks positive: an internet with less online harm has to be much better than the current state of social media right now. However I have two concerns. One being that an ever-widening definition of “harm” might lead to overzealous censorship, though the list of harms it seeks to cover seems very reasonable. The second is the burden placed on platforms. We saw with GDPR that some US sites (such as the LA Times) simply blocked access to EU visitors as dealing with GDPR wasn’t worth their effort. California later implemented its own regulation similar to GDPR which meant many US sites ended up relenting and complied with GDPR. Might the same happen here? Additionally, would a company like Twitter have been able to flourish with the burden of huge fines for not policing content? If not (and I think likely not); will this legislation end up cementing the place of the current social media platforms as gatekeepers, making it harder for startups to compete? Will we simply see groups who get banned from the major platforms move to less centralised systems? $10/month gets you a Linux box from Linode, or for those with a decent uplink, a Raspberry Pi, either of those running Discourse could suffice as a small scale alternative to the big platforms. What happens then? Are hosting companies and ISPs also responsible for enforcing moderation? While I think it’s a good that the Government are trying to solve the problems we face online, there is also the law of unintended consequences.

The iPad Will Be Reinvented

In 2020 Apple really pushed the boundaries of what we can expect from a laptop in terms of performance. All of a sudden we have laptops with 20-hour battery life that are faster than even most high-end Intel laptops. At the same time, Apple neglected to significantly update the iPad line in 2020, with only slightly faster processes and new colours coming to the midrange, and a LIDAR sensor being added to the top of the line iPad Pro. This leaves the iPad in a weird position – unless you need the Apple Pencil for drawing – there is no longer big productivity draw. It used to be an iPad with a keyboard dock and could get you a fast, ultraportable laptop-like device with amazing battery life. Part of my disappointment with the iPad over the past 10 years is that what stated out as the next thing in computing has really gone nowhere – it’s simply evolved to become a laptop with a touchscreen. Now that actual laptops have many of the same benefits of the iPad but without the draconian App Store restrictions, where does this leave the iPad? As a sofa-based content consumption device it makes sense, but people aren’t buying £770 tablets for Facebook and Netflix. Apple must surely see this, and so I am expecting something at the high end that is a hybrid of a Mac and an iPad. Something with the elegance and convenience of an iPad, but with the power of a proper laptop.

GPT-3 Style Language Models Will Challenge the Media

I have only had access to GPT-3 for a few weeks, but already I am amazed by it. The biggest surprise to me was that you don’t need to train it with much of your own data, you simply give it a prompt such as “Summarise the following text for a 10 year old” or provide it with a list, and it will continue the list. There are many exciting and positive applications of this technology, but while Open AI, the company behind GPT-3 is being ultra-responsible by only allowing access via an API key (that can be shut off in the case of misuse), and is providing developers with an avenue to report potentially dangerous output, it is only a matter of time before someone else who is not as conscientious will invent something similar to GPT-3. This could exacerbate problems we already see in online media at the moment. Already the web is full of numerous “news sites” that purport to be providing journalism, but are in fact thinly vailed opinion pieces short on facts. If these sites could instead churn out content with the click of a button, it will make the problem of fake news even worse. It will be up to our already struggling media sector to resist the temptation to join the race for our attention with clickbait headlines, and instead double-down on the reporting of objective truth. I expect questions about how such media is paid for, and who has access to it to become even more apparent in 2021. Paywalls for example are good idea in some respects, as they do not incentivise content written purely to capture more page views (ad impressions), but they also leave the majority outside of the paywall with the lower quality content. Thankfully in the UK we have the BBC, but even that is under threat. While I have faith that most will have the critical thinking skills not to be taken in by fake news (AI generated or not), we have seen in recent years that it can be very easy to be fooled – especially when it’s something you’re inclined to agree with anyway.

Those are just a few topics I think many of us will give thought to in 2021. Depending on how the pandemic plays out, I’m sure there will be many, many others too. With vaccine rollouts underway, let’s hope we can get back to some sense of normality soon. What do you think 2021 will bring? Let me know in the comments.

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