Looking back, 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely difficult and disruptive to business and our personal lives.
However, 2020 was not only deleterious – at least not with regard to technology. In many technology fields progress has accelerated significantly. Two of these areas are artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, which will play a prominent role in 2021 and following years.
Over the last few years AI has grown in importance in a wide variety of fields such as healthcare, bioscience, education, transport, marketing, finance, cybersecurity and many more. We are increasingly surrounded by AI, which will further proliferate in 2021.
During the Covid-19 pandemic AI played an important role in finding a solution to the Covid-19 virus by elucidating unexplored viral pathways. Machine learning-based models, trained on specific biomolecules, have offered inexpensive and rapid implementation methods for the discovery of effective viral therapies. AI was also used in the quest for a suitable Covid-19 vaccine by helping researchers understand the virus and its structure, and by predicting which of its components will provoke an immune response.
But as AI tools become more powerful in the coming years, computational methods could help scientists solve our most difficult vaccine challenges, such as finding an effective HIV vaccine, or creating a flu vaccine that will last for multiple years.
AI enters video conferencing
An exciting new development is Nvidia’s Broadcast app and its Omniverse Machinima (an app that lets characters and voices come to life) that uses AI to significantly enhance the voice and video of regular video conferencing software - our lifeline while working from home.
People spending hours in virtual meetings will know that the background can be problematic, especially if there are more than one member of the family busy with video conferencing and you have to work from your bedroom or an untidy room. Nvidia uses Graphics Processing Unit or GPU-centric capabilities to provide virtual backgrounds, which entails technologies like AI greenscreen effects and deepfakes (synthetic media in which a person in an existing image of video is replaced with someone else’s likeness) to give a more desirable and realistic virtual office than the very basic backgrounds currently available in video conferencing software.
In fact AI even has the ability to make you look younger and dress you virtually so that you appear more professional on the screen when working from home. People unfortunately judge us by our appearance and during the pandemic wrinkled clothing, a lack of makeup, partial beards, and uncut hair became quite common in virtual meetings.
With Nvidia’s Omniverse Machinima it is possible to create 3D scans of yourself dressed for business, and then use your camera to sync them with your body. Dynamic virtual clothing will advance in the years to come so that we could even be dressed in culturally correct ways for each country that we are having a meeting with.
The Qualcomm 8cx platform has a unique AI feature that adjusts your eyes in real time, so that it will appear to the remote audience that you are looking directly at them.
Another major problem with video conferencing is the constant background noise that led to the practice continually muting and unmuting the microphone. Nvidia, Qualcomm and Intel (Tiger Lake and Evo platforms) succeeded in eliminating background noise such as keyboard typing, microphone static, noisy computer fans, and thus the constant muting and unmuting.
Nvidia Broadcast also dynamically tracks your movements in real-time with Auto Frame, automatic cropping and zooming to keep the speaker in the centre of the picture. Unfortunately the NVIDIA virtual greenscreen technology is currently only available for machines with a NVIDIA GPU and the Windows operating system.
Really smart digital assistants
Digital assistants are becoming much more mature and increasingly integrate with office devices to provide a seamless service. Cisco expanded their intelligent Webex device portfolio with Webex Desk Hub to simplify hotdesking in the new hybrid work environment involving a combination of remote and on-site interactions. It is important for the worker to have seamless, smart experiences whether they are at home, in the office or somewhere in between. The Webex Desk Hub is wrapped with AI to provide a consistent experience to enable people to get their work done in a hybrid work environment.
Future digital assistants will be somewhat familiar to the familiar Alexa experience, except that the AI technologies are much more mature as in the case of IBM’s Watson and would provide far more deeper insights and useful solutions to business challenges.
It would be much easier to find the person responsible for a specific issue when you need urgent approval or whom you should be collaborating with in a large organisation. The AI assistant could also keep you out of trouble by alerting you far more timely if you are doing anything against company policy or the law of a particular country.
AI health monitoring
Although many people may not realise it, the popular health monitors build into our smart phones and watches are driven by AI and advanced algorithms. I believe that in 2021 we will see important developments in health monitoring. The current heart and pulse, oxygen saturation and sleep monitors will become more accurate and reliable. Blood pressure and glucose monitoring will be added. And all our vital signs will be linked directly to healthcare monitoring services for faster medical assistance during emergencies.
We will see more embedded technology and advanced prosthetics such as brain interfaces. A team working to restore capacity to people with spinal injuries have recently released a video of the quadriplegic Robert Chmielewski feeding himself by manipulating a pair of advanced prosthetic arms using signals from his brain through an implanted brain-computer interface (BCI) and the help of AI.
It may be problematic to some, but we will increasingly be surrounded by robots the years to come. And if the Boston Dynamics robots are anything to go by, we are in for an interesting ride since the new generation of robots are becoming extremely capable.
Very significantly, towards the end of 2020 the USA Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approved drone delivery, including flights during night time and over populated areas. Although drones represent the fastest-growing segment in the transportation sector in many countries, in South Africa we will probably see it in the future in rural areas where conventional deliveries are not economical. After successful tests during the Covid-19 pandemic the supermarket chain Walmart will soon start delivering groceries and health and wellness products by air in major USA cities.
Walmart further partnered with Quest Diagnostics and DroneUp for the delivery of collection kits to take a self-administered test for Covid-19 infection. Tissue and organ delivery services are also considering drone delivery services.
Autonomous or self-driving vehicles are very much in the news since many companies worldwide are experimenting with driverless cars and trucks. Autonomous vehicles will certainly change the face of the transportation industry in 2021. After successful trials since 2019 the state of California is one of the first to implement large automated delivery vehicles. After testing over 564 000 kilometres and 4 million street crossings, Starship Technologies started in the middle of 2020 with the deployment of thousands of its six-wheeled delivery robots on university campuses to deliver food and other products.
Many more companies are focusing on autonomous delivery using automated minivans (e.g. Nuro), mini-robotic cars, or delivery robots. Automated delivery and robotaxis will soon be part of our everyday life, despite the fierce protest from unions.
But in South Africa self-driving trucks and delivery vehicles are in the distant future. The AI behind automated driving is based on the traffic rules, which is used to anticipate certain behaviour from other vehicles and to make decisions. Unfortunately, South African drivers, and in particular our mini taxi-buses, often do not follow the traffic rules. They pass on the yellow line on the left, drive through a red traffic light, do not stop at stop streets and do not keep to the speed limit. An AI-based automated vehicle thus find it difficult to drive in such an erratic environment.
Automation will not be limited to automated vehicles and drones, but will expand in 2021 to many industries. Covid-19 forced us to rethink the way we do business. Some restaurants and hotels over the world are therefore automating, since robots do not catch or spread viruses and can also operate 24/7 without demanding an increase in pay or leave.
The automated restaurant are blending industrial robots with food preparation and delivery. Especially in the fast food industry speed is important. Robots are therefore used to optimise some processes such as the burger flipper, Flippy, of White Castle in Chicago that manages both the grill and fryers. Currently many dough kneading and pizza-bots are being used and can turn out 120 pizzas per hour.
In the USA Domino’s used a DOM Pizza Checker – an AI-powered imaging technology to limit customers complaints by checking if it is the correct pizza and toppings and if it is evenly distributed.
Automation could address two major problems - overcoming the shortage of reliable restaurant staff experienced in many countries and helping to keep restaurants and fast-food outlets open during a pandemic.
2021 a fascinating year
It is apparent that AI and robotic technologies are maturing, becoming more powerful and can add tremendous value to business. But 2021 may see many more innovative technologies such as flying cars, suits and motorcycles. Two startups, JetPack Aviation and Gravity Industries, are both focusing on vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and human propulsion. Gravity Industries has developed a real-life ‘Iron Man’ flying suit while JetAviation is prototyping the Speeder, a fully stabilized flying autonomous motorcycle that can fly one or two individuals at over 400 km/h and the JB12 personal aerial Jetpack used by the US Navy Special Forces for short-distance troop transportation. However, besides military and paramedic use, these technologies will take time to mature into the mainstream commercial market.
Despite a difficult start due to the second Covid-19 wave, technology-wise 2021 will be a fascinating year. South Africa may unfortunately in some cases have to wait a bit longer for some of these technologies.
Prof Louis C H Fourie is a Technology Strategist