Radar trends to watch: April 2021

Trends in AI, Social Media, Augmented Reality, and More

By Mike Loukides
April 1, 2021
Rethinking programming

March was a busy month. There’s been a lot of talk about augmented and virtual reality, with hints and speculation about products from Apple and Facebook. In the next two years, we’ll see whether this is more than just talk. We’ve also seen more people discussing operations for machine learning and AI, including a substantive talk by Andrew Ng. We’ve long believed that operations was the unacknowledged elephant in the room; it’s finally making it into the open. And we’ve had our share of bad news: proposals for military use of AI, increased surveillance (for example, automated license plate readers at luxury condominiums connected to police departments). More than ever, we have to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to build.


  • Contentyze is a free, publicly available language model that claims to be GPT-3-like. It works fairly well. Wired also points to a free GPT-3-like model called Eleuther.
  • The AI Infrastructure Alliance wants to describe a canonical stack for AI, analogous to LAMP or MEAN; they see see it as a way to free AI from domination by the technology giants.
  • Global treaties on the use of AI in warfare?  The time may have come.  But verifying compliance is extremely difficult.  Nuclear weapons are easy in comparison.
  • Operations for Machine Learning (i.e., integrating it into CI/CD processes) is the big challenge facing businesses in the coming years. This isn’t the first time operations for ML and AI have appeared in Trends…  but people are getting the message.
  • The next step in AI is Multimodal: AI that combines multiple abilities and multiple senses, starting with computer vision and natural language.
  • Smart drones kill moths by crashing into them, to prevent damage to crops. Pesticide-free agricultural pest control.
  • Tesla’s fully self-driving car isn’t fully self-driving, and that’s the good part. Musk still seems to think he can have a fully self-driving car by the end of 2021, apparently by skipping the hard work.
  • Turn any dial into an API with a camera and some simple computer vision: Pete Warden’s notion of TinyAI could be used to make everything machine-readable, including electric meters and common appliances.
  • The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has published a huge and wide-ranging report on the future development of AI in the US, covering both business and military applications. Recommendations include the military development of AI-based weapons, and the creation of a quasi-military academy for developing AI expertise.
  • A robotic lifeguard: an autonomous underwater robot for rescuing swimmers.


  • We have been building centralized data systems for the past decade. The pendulum is about to swing the other way: data decentralization will be driven in part by regulation, in part by changes in advertising platforms, and in part by competition between cloud platforms.
  • Thoughtworks’ thoughts on building a digital healthcare ecosystem: put the patients first (not the providers), make data accountable, build and share knowledge, leverage new technology.
  • Empowering the public to resist the surveillance state: data strikes, data poisoning, reimagined as collective action, in a paper presented at the FaccT conference.

Social Media

  • Zuckerberg proposes that social media platforms “should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it.” Such a policy would give a significant advantage to established players–but in that, it’s not unlike laws requiring safe disposal of toxic waste.
  • Either ignoring or unaware of the potential for abuse, Slack added a feature allowing unblockable direct messages from paid users to any users of the system (not just users from the same organization). While message delivery in Slack can be stopped, email containing the message body can’t. Slack is promising to fix this feature.


  • Nokia has released the Plan 9 Operating System (started by Rob Pike, Brian Kernighan, and Dennis Ritchie) under the open source MIT license.  No one knows whether it will prosper, but it is the first significantly new operating system we’ve seen in years.
  • An important take on performance: it’s not about speeds, it’s about statistics and what happens at the edges of the distribution. Understanding queuing theory is the key, not MHz and Mbps.
  • Is Microsoft’s low-code, Excel-based open source programming language Power Fx what brings programming to the masses?
  • Non-Intrusive Production Debugging: Is this a trend? Or just a flash in the pan? The ability to run a debugger on code running in production and observe what is happening line-by-line seems like magic.

Augmented Reality

  • As part of its augmented reality strategy, Facebook is developing a non-invasive wristband-based neural interface that lets you control digital objects with thought.
  • The killer app for AR might be audio: smart headphones and hearing aids that can extract important sounds (conversations, for example) from a sea of noise.
  • Mojo Vision has developed very low power chips for use in AR contact lenses.
  • Facebook is talking more about its AR/VR glasses, along with new kinds of user interfaces, in which AI mediates literally every part of the wearer’s experience.


  • Google’s ProjectZero security team, which has been responsible for disclosing many vulnerabilities (and getting vendors to fix them), has just exposed a number of vulnerabilities that were actively being used by government organizations in counter-terrorist activities.
  • Botnets have been observed storing key configuration information in cryptocurrency blockchains, including the IP addresses of infected systems. Taking down the botnet’s control server is no longer an effective defense, because the server can easily be rebuilt.
  • Tens of thousands of Microsoft Exchange Server installations have been compromised. Some of the servers may have been attacked by a group connect to the Chinese government, though there are several variants of the attack, suggesting multiple actors.
  • The problem with a walled garden: once the attackers are in, the walls are protecting them, too.  iOS’s security features make successful attacks very difficult; but when they succeed, they are almost impossible to detect.


  • The CRISPR equivalent of a laptop: Onyx is a small, portable, and (relatively) inexpensive tool for automating CRISPR gene editing.  It could make CRISPR much more widely accessible, much as the laptop did for computing.
  • AI and NVidia have made a breakthrough in using deep learning for genetic research. In addition to reducing the time to do some analyses from days to hours, they have significantly reduced the number of cells needed, making it easier to do research on rare genetic diseases.


  • California has banned user interface “dark patterns”: intentionally confusing user interface designs used to prevent people from opting out of data collection.
  • “Headless” wordpress: WordPress as an API for content, using the JAMstack (JavaScript, APIs, and Markup) for rendering rather than PHP.
  • Project Gemini claims to be recreating the web.  It’s more than gopher, but not much more.  My biggest question is whether anyone cares about old-style “internet browsing” any more?
  • Is the next step for web developers HTML over WebSockets?  Developers are starting to realize that browser-side JavaScript development has resulted in spiraling complexity, poor performance, and buggy applications.

Quantum Computing


  • Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have taken the blockchain world by storm. But it’s not clear that NFTs have any real application. What is the value of proving that you own a tweet or an emoji?

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Post topics: Radar Trends
Post tags: Signals