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Amazon CTO’s 8 big predictions for tech in 2021

This year is going to be a launchpad for change, writes Amazon vice president and chief technology officer WERNER VOGELS.

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Photo by Seb Daly/Web Summit via Sportsfile

2020 was a year unlike any other. Companies and businesses of all sizes and governments new and old had to change across all facets, and technology helped manage these changes. Whether it was Blackboard, Zoom, Netflix, or any number of other tools, we relied on technology to help prepare meals, teach our children, collaborate with coworkers, and even entertain ourselves after yet another day at home. Rather than slow us down, 2020 accelerated our shift to a digital world, and I anticipate we won’t go back any time soon. Thanks to this acceleration, from my vantage point, 2021 will be a launchpad for all kinds of change. Here are some of the areas that will be driving it.

1. Cloud will be everywhere

The days of cloud capabilities being centralised in data centers are fast fading. Today, cloud-based applications can help boost the performance of ships at sea, aircraft traversing the sky, and in our cars and homes. Access to the cloud’s compute and storage is also reaching farther—from rural communities and remote wildernesses to near-earth orbit. Practically speaking, the cloud is accessible nearly everywhere—and it’s not just reach that matters, it’s the speed of the connections. For example, 5G extends to the edge of the networks and enables real computational work to be done.

This matters because tasks can now start to happen where results are needed most. For example, driverless cars become real, you can have more natural conversations with services like Alexa, and factories, homes, and office spaces become increasingly efficient and resilient. And if gaming is your thing, you’ll no longer need to worry about lag hampering your experience and your skills will be at full strength, wherever you are.

2. The internet of machine learning

We generate more data in one hour than was created in the entirety of 2000—and more data will be created in the next three years than was created over the past 30. In 2020, whether you’re a data scientist or not, we got a glimpse of this growing data curve as scientific researchers, pharmaceutical companies, governments, and healthcare institutes turned every resource toward developing vaccines, novel treatments, and other means to help the world’s population remain healthy during the pandemic. These efforts required generating and processing vast amounts of data. The only realistic way to handle all the information is to use ingestion and aggregation tools, married to machine learning (ML) models, to help make sense of it. It’s no wonder that ML went mainstream this year.

In 2021, we’ll see accelerated adoption of ML models across industries and government. In manufacturing, ML will be embedded on production lines, able to spot production anomalies in real-time. In agriculture, ML models will help farmers intelligently manage precious resources, such as soil and water. For parts of the world where small-holder farmers are the majority—for example, across Southeast Asia and Africa—pushing ML models into new applications and collecting data closer to the edge will be revolutionary in helping increase crop yields and find the best price for their effort.

3. In 2021, pictures, video, and audio will speak more than words

A few years ago, I talked about the death of the keyboard due to the rapid growth of voice-activated computing and the rise of user interfaces that allow humans to communicate with machines—and with each other—more naturally. In the months and years ahead, I predict that keyboards will continue to phase out in an evolved way.

In the past year—as we all entered the depths of lock down—we increasingly communicated via audio, video, and images. As a result, the amount of text we consume on our screens is being reduced as we make more use of multimedia to communicate. Companies that want to remain relevant to their customers need to be keenly aware of these changing habits—rather than expecting customers to interact with their products and services through a keyboard, mouse, or other mechanical ways. When it comes to building relationships and transacting with a brand, customers want to do what’s natural to them. Thus, companies should explore this move towards user interfaces like voice, and other forms of audio and video.

4. Technology will transform our physical worlds as much as our digital worlds

In 2020 we were introduced to social distancing. As we spaced ourselves out, we had the chance to take stock and rethink how our cities live, breathe, and flow. Many of the places we live and work have been built on decades-old assumptions (or centuries-old, depending on where you live) that don’t hold up anymore—or at the very least, don’t perform well in a pandemic.

With the help of advanced data analytics, we’ll start to figure out how to design our cities with the advantages of social distancing without the sense of being apart. Our planning will consider how we make our communities healthier and safer, rather than merely denser and more efficient. It’s the true convergence of the digital and the physical.

5. Remote learning earns its place in education

Recently, I spoke with high school students in Warsaw, Poland, who use the online learning service Brainly to keep up with their schoolwork and help each other in class. Tools like Brainly have exploded as parents support their kids’ learning in this new remote education reality.

Technology, and access to it, has played a huge role in children’s education during this pandemic. In 2021, we’ll prove that remote learning can work—and may be a better option for some—and can have a positive and more persistent role in education. We don’t need a global health crisis for online classes to make sense. Having remote schooling (and working) options widely available at any time means that kids can stay home when they’re sick without falling behind. Or what if there’s no school to go to at all? If there’s an internet connection, there’s the possibility for some type of education.

No question, I think we should send our kids back to classrooms. But there will be other interruptions. Remote classrooms give school systems the flexibility to respond to unforeseen events—whether pandemics, natural disasters, or man-made calamities—to continue student education.

6. Small businesses will race to the cloud, and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will lead the way

In a massive shift, small businesses will begin to make use of advanced cloud technology to reach their customers. We’ll see an explosion of higher-level technologies and service providers that cater to these small businesses. In turn, this will help small business do everything—from spinning up a chatbot to help answer frequently asked questions, to getting a customer relationship management system in place and running within minutes. Small businesses get the benefits of sophisticated architectures and applications without having to invest the time and expense of building it themselves.

The “cloud everywhere” trend described above is enabling this shift alongside the experience that most small businesses faced this past year. In many cases, the difference between surviving—or not—was an ability to leverage technology. Only 47% of small and medium businesses in the U.S. have their own website. Expect this number to grow in 2021. As this trend expands globally, we should look to nations in Southeast Asia—like Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Africa, like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa—to lead the way.

7. Quantum computing starts to bloom

We’ve seen time and again, if you can democratise the most advanced, complex technology and make it affordable, available, and understandable to as many people as possible, great things happen. At re:Invent 2019 we announced Amazon Braket, a fully-managed quantum computing service that helps researchers and developers get started with the technology to accelerate research and discovery. And in 2020 we made it available to everyone.

There’s no question we’re at the early stages of this mind-bending approach to computing, but that’s the point of Braket. It’s especially important in this exploratory time that we let as many people as possible get their hands dirty and their brains wrapped around quantum computing. As companies and institutions begin to experiment with quantum for the first time—and as that expertise starts to move beyond the academic world—we’ll see business plans and the early seeds of products and services that center around a quantum future.

8. The final frontier

For technology to help everyone around the world live a better life, we shouldn’t go out and around the world as much as we should go up and above it.

In 2019, we launched a service called AWS Ground Station. It enables the ability to control satellite communications, process data, and scale operations without having to worry about building or managing a ground station infrastructure. We’re already seeing the ability to access and process satellite data helping researchers track glacial recession, maritime agencies protect vulnerable marine reserves, and agronomists better predict food supply. Startups are looking to establish a new breed of fast, secure networks in outer space. By making access to space affordable and accessible to every developer, I’m looking forward to seeing the innovations that come back down to earth and help us grow and prosper.

To read the full ebook of insights, click here.

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