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Another year is over …

Graphic showing the Log4J attack: 12h after the outbreak 40,000 systems were infected, rising to 120,000 after 24h, 400,000 after 36h and 830,000 after 3 days. Image credit: Check Point

On December 9th, 2021, a flaw in a software library, Log4J, was discovered. This flaw was present, at that time, in over 100 million systems all over the world. On December 10th the  flaw was exploited by some hackers and within 3 days it had affected at least 830,000 systems. During that same period software providers and companies scrambled to fix the flaw, and they still are.

2021 has been a follow up of 2020 in terms of remote working and increased shift to the cyberspace, sometimes called Digital Transformation (although real DX is much more than that, it requires an in-depth process re-engineering to transform the company). As such, it is no wonder that as we look back to 2021 and the technology that has characterised this year the first thing popping up is the security concerns, following the many “big” security breaches experienced all over the world.

2021 begun with the discovery of the Solar Wind Hack that affected thousands of companies in such a stealthy way (the hack was released in April 2020, but it was not detected only several months later) that there might still be companies affected that are not aware of it. This hack took a geo-political character with US pointing the finger to Russia (if not directly accusing the Russian Government at least blaming it for lack of control).

After that we have got news of several others major security breaches involving big companies, Governments organisations and affecting million and millions of people, like the Saudi Aramco (watch the clip) or the T-Mobile breaches.

A close relative of security flaws, although with a completely different twist, is the rise of deepfakes. Get a feeling of the level of sophistication deepfake has reached by taking a look at these videos created in 2021.

At the core of deepfake, as well as playing a role in hacking, is AI. Artificial Intelligence made tremendous and exponential progress in 2021, luckily contributing to the positive progress in many areas, not just supporting hackers and deepfakers. Actually, if I have to single out just one technology that has dominated the 2021 landscape I would point to AI because:

  • it kept evolving delivering better and better performances at lower and lower cost
  • it is spreading in a growing number of areas, including healthcare from pharma to elderly care, from diagnoses to surgery assistants
  • it is affecting our lay-people experience (think about chatbots like Alexa and Sire whom we are engaging with more and more)
  • it has shifted from being the turf of big players (Google, Apple, Amazon,…) to being the tool of the trade of many industries
  • GPT-3 is now offering amazing capabilities, basically for free, to anyone wishing to develop conversational natural language interfaces
  • the year has closed with the announcements of the Gopher and GLaM that are taking AI development possibilities to an even higher level.

The uptake of Digital Transformation throughout 2021 kept accelerating and one indicator is the rise of adoption of clouds, fattening the bottom line of the Big Players (see AWS, Azure, Google Cloud…), and pushing more players into the arena to fit niches demand like Digital Ocean providing steam to the growth of edge cloud.  In this framework you can also place the growing footprint of GAIA-X that has reached a membership of 300+ companies all around the world.

RPA – Robotic Process Automation- is clearly making progress but it is still on the starting block, so to say. Siemens has starting to package their factory robots along a communication fabric leveraging on Private 5G (where permitted by the regulatory framework, like in Germany) and supporting the operation in the cyberspace through Digital Twins (and Mindsphere).  The whole area of Digital Twins has exploded with more and more companies in a variety of different sectors adopting them to the point that Digital Twins are now a de-facto standard.

Synthetic representation of maturity and impact of technologies that have characterised 2021. Image credit: IEEE

An IEEE group led by Dejan Milojicic, who will be taking the lead of the Industry Advisory Board of the Future Direction committee starting tomorrow, January 1st 2021,  -congrats Dejan!- and to whom I participated has come up with the graphic on the left synthesizing the impact of a few technologies that have been felt to be at the forefront of evolution in 2021. A full report will be available in the first months of 2022.

As you can see in the diagram Security related technologies are present, like advanced cyber-weapons, disinformation detection, election security, as well as AI related technologies, like trustworthy and explainable AI, Synthetic Data for bias–free ML training, HPC as a service, ML for additive-subtractive manufacturing. Obviously, the whole area of technologies to support remote working and social distancing played a big role throughout 2021.

There are several more technologies that made the headlines in 2021 and, most importantly, contributed to the evolution of the market and changed our perception of the landscape. I am looking forward to hear your thoughts on what you consider to have been most impactful.

Now it’s time to go and pop the cork, and wish you all a happy ending.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.