Almost everyone is looking eagerly to the year 2021 and trying to forget 2020 which saw the whole world trapped in a state of limbo as the global pandemic pushed citizens into strict lockdown and harsher economic realities. While the application of tech got wider diffusion and proliferation in 2020, the year did not augur well for technological advances as innovation and scientific creativity took a backseat through the year. Looking forward, we can expect the coming year to be revolutionary with respect to the innovation and growth in the internet-enabled technologies. My observation is not guided by some obscure crystal ball, but by extrapolating the tenuous trends that are visible right now. To me, the below-mentioned trends will define the internet and more importantly the evolving society of the future.
1) Fifth Generation Technology Standard for Broadband Cellular Networks
One of the most awaited and exhilarating tech events of the coming year will be the rollout of 5G. World over, 5G networks are already going up and Reliance Jio has confirmed that they will be rolling out their 5G networks by the end of the next year. The 5G networks will operate on greater bandwidth allowing for download speeds close to 10 gigabits per second. The enormous speed of data transfer will usher in an era where the network will operate mobile phones, laptops, desktops and gaming consoles and make virtual reality and augmented reality a part of everyday life. But the most important impact of 5G in consonance with the implementation of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) will be allowing complex machine learning applications that depend on real-time access to big data sources conducted through automation in the field to become a reality and kick-starting an Internet of Things revolution. The implementation of 5G networks will also be the first step towards creating an era of vehicle automation, driverless cars, drone surveillance and advanced robots that will take up more complex functions.
One of the most awaited and exhilarating tech events of the coming year will be the rollout of 5G. (Photo: Reuters)
2) Growth of Artificial Intelligence:
True Artificial Intelligence or what is considered a sentient system might be a long way off yet. But machine learning algorithms are becoming better every day. In 2021, it is going to turn into a valuable tool that will help in understanding and interpreting the world around you better. The amount of data that is being collected is increasing exponentially by mapping an individual’s online behaviour. As the network starts collecting more data about human interactions through the networks of cameras using facial recognition and a network of connected devices, the amount of data collected will explode. So, machine learning algorithms are going to become much better and smarter. They will be more sophisticated and be able to come up with out-of-the-box solutions, primarily because they will be analysing such volumes of data. At an individual level, the growing sophistication of predictive algorithms will result in more powerful personal assistants driven by voice commands and gestures.
3) Centralisation versus decentralisation
Cloud technology is here to stay. The Covid lockdown was a demonstration of the power of cloud networks which allowed organisations to shift to alternate work habits without facing major disruptions. The coming year should see cloud providers move towards providing more security and integrations of services to support business units. Cloud servers will also see more applications being run like Machine Learning programs. Cloud computing is in effect, the centralisation of data. This year has seen the opposite trend also pick up with a huge emphasis on data decentralisation. Edge computing is one such trend which allows distributed networks that are closer to the user. In the beginning, edge computing will be used more for running ML programs on aggregated data from a large number of devices but I predict that very soon it will become the next step up the ladder for organisational network architectures. The other prominent push towards data decentralisation is Social Linked Data or Project Solid being piloted by Sir Tim Werner Lee that aims at cross-linking applications and user data in pods that will result in true data ownership and privacy. 2021 should see both trends grow.
4) Opposition to tech giants
The growing number of cases against the four tech majors Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) pushed by many governments across the world will see no let up. While the governments will look to use antitrust laws to break these giants into manageable sizes, the goliaths might start making concessions and move towards a more transparent regime. Driven by worries of user privacy and relentless psychographic profiling by these organisations, that have made them effectively the only gatekeepers to the Internet, governments and civil society will anyways build up the clamour for greater privacy, the right to being forgotten, more transparency and greater responsibility. The outgoing Republican administration in the US has already indicated that they want to amend Section 230 which has allowed a free pass to the tech majors when it comes to content posted on their platforms. I expect that the Biden administration is likely to have similar views. In India, the proposed new intermediary guidelines are explicit in making intermediaries responsible for the content posted — a move that has generated a lot of pushback. The year 2021 will see huge policy moves across the world.
5) Move towards Balkanisation of the internet
Not satisfied with the existing architecture of the Internet which allows more western tech industries control of the network as against state control, China has consistently raised the demand for a new internet protocol. Russia too at times has mirrored the demand. Recently, Huawei — with very close ties to the People’s Liberation Army of China — released a presentation on the new internet protocol. While the presentation was low on details and high on a technologically superior view of the future, what cannot be ignored is the fact that the internet architecture is archaic and needs some tinkering with. But what China is proposing is a complete state-controlled network — something that they have had for a very long time. This might not fly with the liberal western societies who have also blocked Huawei as the potential partner for the 5G rollouts. What Huawei offers is a cost advantage, which might be irresistible for some of the smaller nations who have economic ties with China through the OBOR project. It would therefore not be a stretch of the imagination to visualise a scenario where China uses its financial muscle to split the Internet into two. I would be watching the 5G rollout done by Huawei very closely to see how this goes in the future.
The current year has seen a concerted increase in cyber-attacks as more and more organisations moved into a Work From Home (WFH) model and more individuals went on the internet for their social interactions and entertainment. As our personal data including access data for our finances move into cyberspace, the threat of cyber-attacks will only increase. What though is even more worrisome is the use of non-state actors by rogue nations like Russia, China and North Korea in carrying out concerted acts of cyber terrorism affecting critical infrastructures and financial networks. In the absence of well-defined international treaties that delineate cyber-attacks from an all-out cyberwar, nations will find it difficult to react proportionately. This year will also see more acts of cybercrimes in the financial space as people will go online for their purchases, thus establishing the cyber trail to be picked up by criminals. The aggregation of data due to migration of cloud also creates targets for focussed attacks due to which I expect more cloud servers to come under attack. This year should also see a growing number of nation-states come together to counter the menace of cybercriminals.
Whatever be the final shape of things, I expect these trends to play out and develop over the year. The coming year is going to be really exciting for all participants and observers of the internet creating the foundation for the next generation network. Meanwhile, for sure we will have more digital citizens in 2021 both in India and globally.