Few things about 2020 were predictable. The coronavirus pandemic meant Zoom became a verb, millions worked from home and online shopping simply became… shopping. Sales of video games consoles and laptops boomed, and Tesla became the world’s most valuable car company.
An unusual year meant a mixed record for our 2020 forecasts. Cryptocurrency did indeed stage a comeback, and Google pushed further into health. Solid state batteries remain elusive, however, and cloud gaming still remains second best to the console.
There are few signs that 2021 will be any more straightforward, but with that in mind, The Telegraph’s tech desk has made 10 new predictions for the tech to watch out for next year.
Who actually loves bowling? Who really lives for the sport? Outside of The Big Lebowski, for most of us it’s merely a pleasant, undemanding excuse to spend time with people we like. Covid-19 has exposed how sorely we need virtual equivalents.
Video chat is no good: its dazzling intensity quickly gives us "Zoom fatigue", and a call with more than 10 people is either chaos or a lecture. Video games, which younger generations often use as a background for hanging out, are usually too complex, frantic and intimidating to serve the same purpose for older people.
Yet that is already changing. Many of 2020’s biggest games, from Animal Crossing to Among Us, were more community venues than tests of button-mashing skill. Facebook bet hard on aimless "social" virtual reality, while conferences, museums and house parties were adapted to cyberspace. Techies are excitedly calling it the "Metaverse". Never mind that, think about meta-bowling instead.
Why: Stop-start lockdowns, permanent remote working, international friendships, virus mutations and future pandemics will sustain the need for "background" digital activities for years to come.
Why not: Once we’re truly safe, we may hate the idea of spending more time staring at screens.
Hanging out in Animal Crossing might beat Zoom for many
The rise of robot therapy
The pandemic has starved many people of social interaction, the simple human need to have someone to talk to. Instead, we have had to make do with Zoom and phone calls.
But now that we have become used to digital companionship, the next step could be replacing the person on the other end of the phone call with software.
In 2020, artificial intelligence lab OpenAI released a language model that imitates human conversation better than any program to date. Other ingredients, such as synthetic faces and voices, are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from real ones.
Already, AI companions like Replika are fusing these technologies together to create virtual companions. Millions of men in China confide in Xiaoice, an AI girlfriend. Developers of these robots say that talking to an AI is akin to writing in a journal, a judgement free space that feels therapeutic, rather than an alternative to chatting to other humans.
Many will find the idea preposterous. The same might have once been said about talking to someone over a telephone wire instead of in person.
Why: Rapid advances in AI and embrace of online communications during Covid have moved our comfort zones towards digital chat.
Why not: Talking to a machine is still far too strange to be considered by many.
Widespread adoption of digital IDs
In a world where driverless cars and delivery drones are around the corner, the way in which we prove who we are remains remarkably quaint.
Digital identities have long promised much – including the death of the pesky password – but delivered relatively little.
That’s set to change next year thanks, in part, to vaccines. Airline executives, pub and club owners, and sports clubs may demand patrons prove they’ve had the Covid-19 jab.
Verifying vaccinations could tempt swathes of the population into using biometrics to prove their identity for the first time. It could also pave the way for an end to paper-based passports and driving licenses.
Indeed, the Government is already drawing up plans to allow the use of digital identities “as widely as possible”. Meanwhile there are a raft of British start-ups from Onfido and iProov to Veridium looking to excel in the sector, which is expected to be valued at $30.5bn (£22.6bn) within the next four years.
Why: If vaccination passports become a reality it will provide momentum for digital IDs to be used across a host of other services.
Why not: A world of have and have-nots could emerge, depending on whether or not you’ve had the jab.
3D printing your own home
For millions of homeowners flat-pack furniture has been the easy way to shape the house of their dreams. In the coming 12 months, those for whom property ownership has been out of reach may discover that flat-pack homes can turn their dreams into a reality.
The idea of 3D printing homes has attracted much attention this year. Councillors and government officials are becoming increasingly interested in the technology, which follows digital blueprints and pumps out layers of concrete and mortar to build a house.
Higher house prices are starting to attract 3D printing start-ups to Britain. Mighty Buildings, one of the leaders in the space, told the Telegraph in October that the UK was “great market that already understands the benefits of prefabrication and has a lot of opportunity to take that to the next level".
It may seem years away, but if 2020 has proved anything it is that mere months can bring about huge changes in how we live.
Why: Ministers under pressure to build more affordable housing across Britain as prices push ever higher.
Why not: Hurdles remain for companies building such properties, given tight levels of regulation, a tricky planning system and high land prices.
We have reached an awkward plateau when it comes to smartphones. Every year, Apple, Samsung and others announce their latest offerings, and every year they look essentially the same. The number of people upgrading to the latest rectangle of glass every year has dwindled as upgraded components like improved batteries and larger screens have failed to convince customers to hand over £1,000 for a new device.
So now smartphone manufacturers are experimenting with radical new designs in the hope that they can stumble upon the next hit form factor. Businesses like LG and Oppo have developed rollable screens which can unfurl to show even more of your favourite apps. This may be the solution to people wanting large, tablet-like screens but in small form factors similar to current smartphones.
Any leap forward in smartphone design takes years to perfect, though, and consumers will likely be forced to pay high prices when rollable smartphones go on sale in the first half of 2021.
Why: Major Asian electronics giants searching for ways to make their smartphones stand out are investing heavily into this new novelty.
Why not: Concerns over cost and durability mean it could be a niche form of smartphones for many years to come.
LG's flexible display
If 2020 was a year in which the car industry fully embraced electric motors, expect the same for vans in 2021.
Amazon plans to start taking deliveries of its first electric delivery vans from vehicle maker Rivian in June, and expects to have 10,000 on the road by the end of the year. London-based Arrival, which went public in the US this year, has an order to make thousands of vans for UPS, with mass production due to start late in the year.
While the transition to electric cars is expected to take at least a decade, vans could arrive much faster. Delivery companies are under pressure to cut emissions in city centres and buy vehicles in the tens of thousands to refresh their fleets, and battery-powered transport might be better suited to multiple short hops around urban areas.
Why: A multitude of companies are promising to make electric vans, while delivery companies like Amazon are under societal pressure to embrace them.
Why not: Many manufacturers are unproven, and may struggle to produce vans in the quantities needed to match demand.
The race to vaccinate the global population against Covid-19 could not be a more important – or urgent priority.
It will be one of the key challenges of 2021 as governments and companies scramble to produce, store and transport enough vaccines to achieve immunity.
The extraordinary speed with which companies like Astrazeneca, Pfizer and Moderna have succeeded in developing effective vaccines against Covid-19 and pushing them through clinical trials has astonished many experts.
Some now believe it could help accelerate research into vaccines for other diseases.
For example, a universal flu jab that could make seasonal doses obsolete is entering trials. Vaccinations for Malaria are also believed to be on the horizon.
Last month, British artificial intelligence company DeepMind announced that it had cracked the 50 year old scientific problem of protein folding.
Its new Alphafold technology, which can predict the structure of proteins, could also help researchers develop vaccines.
But while vaccines offer hope for tackling Covid-19, governments around the world are also grappling with a less welcome trend – a rising tide of vaccine misinformation circulating on social media.
Big Tech companies will have their work cut out trying to contain it.
Why: Hundreds of millions of doses have already been ordered, ensuring that the push to vaccinate populations will remain a central theme in 2021
Why not: After the pandemic comes to an end, there is a risk governments lose interest in vaccine development.
While many people have enjoyed working from home this year, others worry the trend risks turning into a dystopian nightmare.
The rise of new types of surveillance tools has created opportunities for bosses to snoop on their staff, whether at home or in the office.
One known as Sneek, for instance, allows firms to photograph remote employees via their webcams every five minutes. Others secretly turn on microphones, log keystrokes or monitor how long employees spend messaging their colleagues.
Now workers are fighting back by using tricks such as placing their laser mouse on an analogue watch to keep their devices active.
But corporate snooping technology is getting smarter and with a return to the office next year far from assured, it could be here to stay. By 2024, the market is predicted to be worth $3.3bn (£2.7bn).
Why: Companies will have new opportunities to install surveillance technology under the guise of monitoring the spread of Covid in offices
Why not: There is growing backlash by unions and workers who claim the tools are invasive and psychologically distressing
Keystrokes and mouse movements of remote workers can be monitored
Credit: Cultura RF
A futuristic new type of technology, telerobotics may look like something out of a sci-fi Hollywood film but they could one day transform the way we undertake many human tasks – from doing household shopping to performing surgery or bomb disposal.
Telerobotics are robots which can be controlled at a distance by a human operator, potentially thousands of miles away.
By wearing a virtual reality headset or other equipemtnthat communicates their body movements to a robot doppelganger, the machine can then perform tasks on their behalf.
In Japan, a three year old start-up called Telexistence has set up its first commercial robot, Model T, to work in a convenience store called Lawson. Already possibilities for this type of technology are emerging in The UK.
London-based company Shadow Robot has developed dexterous hands, complete with thumbs, capable of grasping and using a spanner.
The Ministry of Defence has also been on the hunt for companies that can provide similar technology that would enable people to work in hazardous environments without actually being there.
Why: Because remote working is not just for global pandemics. There is clear demand to be able to send dexterous robots to dispose of bombs or carry out surgery in far away places.
Why not: For other uses, these robots might be able mimic human movements but we still outpace them in terms of speed and dexterity.
New technologies including online streaming, instant publishing and digital payments are changing the way artists communicate with their fans.
They are allowing musicians, designers and writers to be paid directly for their work – a lifeline for many in a year when live performance has been hammered by the pandemic.
Technology companies that provide a simple way for artists to share their work for a subscription are booming, like adult website OnlyFans, Patreon and Amazon-owned Twitch, which has a donate function.
In 2020, several journalists have left their jobs at media titles to join Substack, a subscription newsletter service which allows readers to pay them directly.
Spotify may have upended HMV, but artists are increasingly looking to go-it-alone, particularly if they are being catalogued next to voices they dislike. Spotify has come under fire for some of the content it publishes, the polarising Joe Rogan podcast being one example.
Why: Investors are pouring cash into subscription platforms, and online payments services have made it easier to bypass middlemen.
Why not: People may tire of having disparate mediums to follow artists on, particularly after the pandemic ends and they can go shopping and attend concerts again.