On 1 January 2020, I published my very first Ex Machina article of the year. Since it was also the beginning of a new decade, I made my own modest attempt at predicting the technological changes we could hope to expect in the coming years. I wrote about the promise of artificial intelligence, speech recognition and augmented reality, and how they would come together to let us speak to computers in novel ways. I argued that technology would transform our commute, eventually leading to a future of shared autonomous vehicles that would completely eliminate the need to own personal cars, etc. Finally, I spoke of personalized medicine and a future in which treatments could be calibrated to individual requirements, instead of being focused on discovering drugs that need to work on the entire human population.
What I did not predict was that in a couple of months, a global pandemic would bring the entire world to a grinding halt.
Much of what I had thought would happen will likely still come to pass—although in a slightly different way from what I had imagined. Now that companies have realized how easy it is to support working from home, many businesses are re-thinking their investments in commercial real estate—committing themselves instead to enabling employees to work from wherever they might be at a given point in time.
In addition to all that I had anticipated, I believe this new mindset will eventually contribute to a fundamental alteration of our commute and be another catalyst for some of the urban mobility solutions. I had anticipated. And while autonomous transportation may not become a reality anytime soon, I am excited by the immediate promise that platform solutions of the likes of Beckn have to offer.
I had suggested in my article that computers might soon be able to speak coherently with us, but even I did not imagine we’d get there so soon. The remarkable language abilities of OpenAI’s Generative Pre-trained Transformer Ver 3 (GPT-3) technology took the world by storm this year. But while initial reports suggested that it would make computer communications indistinguishable from human speech, closer study revealed flaws in its output, as also practical limitations in working with very large data-sets. That said, I was heartened by the emergence of new techniques of artificial intelligence such as few-shot learning, and the promise that it could hold for data-starved countries like India.
But the technology breakthrough that everyone was focused on for all of 2020 was in medicine. On this front, my prediction at the beginning of the year fell well short of the mark. As hopeful as I still am for a future in which medicine will be personalized, the covid pandemic made it clear that there will always be a need for medical solutions that can be rolled out rapidly and at scale to the entire global population.
I am thankful that our investments in genetic technologies, the global interconnectedness of the scientific community and the manufacturing capabilities of pharmaceutical companies came together so well this past year to enable us to produce multiple vaccines for covid-19 in record time. I hope these demonstrations of success encourage us to invest in platform vaccine technologies, so that we are better placed to deal with such challenges that we will, no doubt, continue to face in the future.
But, more than anything else, the pandemic demonstrated the central role that technology now plays in society. From the contact-tracing apps that were all the rage in the early months of the disease’s outbreak, to the remote-working solutions that brought us together even though we were far apart, it is clear that all aspect of our lives today are dependent on technology.
Our recent experiences will hopefully serve as the impetus we need to make sure that small businesses and ordinary citizens in this country get greater access to the internet, so that they can all partake in this future.
Early in the lockdown, the department of telecommunications relaxed the work-from-home restrictions that applied to technology companies registered as Other Service Providers (OSP)—a relaxation that was made permanent before the end of the year with a radical overhaul of the entire OSP framework. Later in the year, the Union cabinet approved the Prime Minister Wi-Fi Access Network Interface, or PM Wani , a new regulation system for wifi that will encourage the rapid proliferation of digital technologies in India.
As good as these regulatory measures might be, we still need key technology legislation to bring us on par with the rest of the world. It was good to see that despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, the meetings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on data protection proceeded apace. Equally interesting was the government’s interest in regulating non-personal data, making India the first country to attempt governing the entire data landscape.
As gruesome as the year has been, it has forced us to reconsider our relationship with technology—and to engage with it in different ways.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan