Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 saw a decade of digital transformation in the span of a few months. Don't expect the pace of change to end any time soon, says futurist Amy Webb.
"There were tremendous aftershocks that started to reverberate and change many different segments of the economy," says Webb, who presented Future Today Institute's 14th annual Tech Trends Report at SXSW this week. At roughly 500 pages, this year's edition is the bulkiest yet. Webb says that the length primarily was due to the impact of Covid-19 as barriers to the widespread adoption of remote work, digital payments, and artificial intelligence seemed to disappear nearly overnight. The report highlights nearly 500 new trends, up from 406 last year.
So, what's on deck for 2021 and beyond? You can expect further advancements in artificial intelligence, including for health care applications like drug discovery and improving patient outcomes, but also in forms of creative expression, like in the visual arts or music. The move toward cryptocurrencies and decentralized finance will continue, and the demand for digital collectibles such as nonfungible tokens (NFTs) will boom this year. As more nations switch to 5G, a wealth of new technologies such as robots, drones, holograms, and augmented reality displays will show up in our everyday environment, from shopping malls to sports arenas.
What's more, algorithms will continue to score and rank areas of our life, from our sleep to our fitness to our "social credit score," which measures your online activity. In other words, the videos, the pictures, the links, nearly everything you post online will continue to be measured by big tech.
"Everyone alive today is being scored," wrote the authors of the report.
Here is a look at some of the most notable predictions for 2021.
1. Smartphones will be a thing of the past.
The pandemic hit the smartphone industry especially hard, with global smartphone shipments declining in 2020 as both demand and supply took a nosedive. While smartphone sales will likely rebound in 2021, they will also have to compete with a new breed of smart eyewear and wearables that are entering the market. These include Apple's yet-to-be-released smartglasses, virtual reality headsets such as Facebook's Oculus Quest 2 and Microsoft's HoloLens, and a growing industry of wearables and "hearables" like the Apple AirPods.
Webb notes that people are holding on to their old smartphones for longer, and are less excited by new features.
"There are just not a lot of compelling new features or functionality that are coming and are all in one smartphone device. So we're transitioning away from that. It's a different paradigm, from a single phone to a new constellation of devices that we will either wear or embed," says Webb, who is a former Inc. columnist.
2. The tech exodus and newly remote workforces aren't temporary.
While Silicon Valley isn't going anywhere, there will be an impact as companies like Facebook, Shopify, Twitter, Square, and Slack promise to let their workers continue to work from home past the pandemic's end. Startups and smaller companies will likely follow suit. This will result in a high-skilled tech workforce now being more equally distributed across the United States, instead of just the Bay Area and New York City.
3. Health care is the next battleground for big tech.
The tech giants will make further advances in health care, including through wearables such as smart glasses and wristbands, and the growing smart fitness industry. There's already been ample evidence of this in recent months, including Apple unveiling its Fitness+ service, Amazon launching a Halo band fitness tracking wearable, and Google's acquisition of Fitbit. Webb predicts that big tech is influential enough to force established pharmaceutical companies and the health insurance industry to evolve. These changes are already in the making; for example, major insurers are already offering to reimburse wearables like the Apple Watch.
Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of telehealth and smart fitness, so expect more advancements in this space from both big tech and startups. Also in the pipeline are further growth of at-home lab testing and remote patient monitoring tools.
4. The "home of things" industry is expanding.
The rising popularity of smart home devices and home surveillance systems such as Amazon Ring and Google Nest has created a new "home of things," or HoT, industry. Google, Amazon, and Apple will be the major players in this space. But also forthcoming are a growing number of connected smart home appliances and devices, from vacuums to drink makers to a trash can that can detect an empty milk carton or box of cereal and automatically order a replacement.
5. Antitrust action may fail to keep up with big tech's moves.
The Biden administration is expected to ramp up antitrust enforcement of big tech. But the report notes the ever-changing business landscape may be too fast for regulators to keep up with. Also, it's unclear whether some of big tech's most consequential actions (such as Facebook's acquisition of Instagram, or Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods or its moves to build out a digital payments, logistics, and delivery infrastructure) are illegal from an antitrust standpoint.
"No U.S. laws prohibit being really, really smart," write the report's authors.
6. Cryptocurrency and social payments will gain mainstream acceptance.
The blockchain and digital currency made significant headway in 2020. Just this month, J.P. Morgan released a report warning that Wall Street is at risk of falling behind in digital finance, and also released a new debt instrument geared toward cryptocurrency companies. For 2021 and beyond, the report predicts that more governments and central banks will seriously explore cryptocurrency. Countries such as Ecuador, China, Singapore, and Senegal have already issued their own digital coins, and a number of other countries, including Japan and Sweden, are actively exploring the adoption of a centralized bank e-currency.
The pandemic encouraged more people to use Venmo, Apple Pay, Google Pay, and other contactless peer-to-peer payment services. The growing popularity of online shopping has prompted a rise in "buy now, pay later," or BNPL, platforms like Affirm. Not only are people now more likely to shop or pay for things with their phones, they're also more likely to trust big tech with their finances. Big tech has already stepped up to the plate. Google last year partnered with Citi to launch mobile bank accounts and plans to add more partner institutions next year. Expect big tech to dive further into consumer finance, from offering loans to cryptocurrency.