Radar trends to watch: August 2021

Trends in Programming, Robotics, Security, and More

By Mike Loukides
August 2, 2021
NE book list part 1

Security continues to be in the news: most notably the Kaseya ransomware attack, which was the first case of a supply chain ransomware attack that we’re aware of. That’s new and very dangerous territory. However, the biggest problem in security remains simple: take care of the basics. Good practices for authentication, backups, and software updates are the best defense against ransomware and many other attacks.

Facebook has said that it is now focusing on building the virtual reality Metaverse, which will be the successor to the web. To succeed, VR will have to get beyond ultra geeky goggles. But Google Glass showed the way, and that path is being followed by Apple and Facebook in their product development.

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AI and Data

  • There’s a new technique for protecting natural language systems from attack by misinformation and malware bots: using honeypots to capture attackers’ key phrases proactively, and incorporate defenses into the training process.
  • DeepMind’s AlphaFold has made major breakthroughs in protein folding. DeepMind has released the source code for AlphaCode 2.0 on GitHub. DeepMind will also release the structure of every known protein. The database currently includes over 350,000 protein structures, but is expected to grow to over 100,000,000. This is of immense importance to research in biology and medicine.
  • Google searches can now tell you why a given result was included. It’s a minor change, but we’ve long argued that in AI, “why” may give you more information than “what.”
  • Researchers have been able to synthesize speech using the brainwaves of a patient who has been paralyzed and unable to talk. The process combines brain wave detection with models that predict the next word.
  • The National Institute of Standards (NIST) tests systems for identifying airline passengers for flight boarding.  They claim that they have achieved 99.87% accuracy, without significant differences in performance between different demographic groups.
  • An attempt at adding imagination to AI works has been made by combining different attributes of known objects. Humans are good at this: we can imagine a green dog, for example.
  • Phase precession is a recently discovered phenomenon by which neurons encode information in the timing of their firing.  It may relate to humans’ ability to learn on the basis of a small number of examples.
  • Yoshua Bengio, Geoff Hinton, and Yann LeCun give an assessment of the state of Deep Learning, its future, and its ability to solve problems.
  • AI is learning to predict human behavior from videos (e.g., movies). This research attempts to answer the question “What will someone do next?” in situations where there are large uncertainties. One trick is reverting to high-level concepts (e.g., “greet”) when the system can’t predict more specific behaviors (e.g., “shake hands”).


  • JAX is a new Python library for high-performance mathematics. It includes a just-in-time compiler, support for GPUs and TPUs, automatic differentiation, and automatic vectorization and parallelization.
  • Matrix is an open standard for a decentralized “conversation store” that is used as the background for many other kinds of applications. Germany has announced that it will use Matrix as the standard for digital messaging in its national electronic health records system.
  • Brython is Python 3.9.5 running in the browser, with access to the DOM.  It’s not a replacement for JavaScript, but there are a lot of clever things you can do with it.
  • Using a terminal well has always been a superpower. Warp is a new terminal emulator built in Rust with features that you’d never expect: command sharing, long-term cloud-based history, a true text editor, and a lot more.
  • Is it WebAssembly’s time? Probably not yet, but it’s coming. Krustlets allow you to run WebAssembly workloads under Kubernetes. There is also an alternative to a filesystem written in wasm; JupyterLite is an attempt to build a complete distribution of Jupyter, including JupyterLab, that runs entirely in the browser.


  • Google launches Intrinsic, a moonshot project to develop industrial robots.
  • 21st Century Problems: should autonomous delivery robots be allowed in bike lanes? The Austin (Texas) City Council already has to consider this issue.


  • Veins in materials? Researchers have greatly reduced the time it takes to build vascular systems into materials, which could have an important impact on our ability to build self-healing structures.
  • Researchers have designed fabrics that can cool the body by up to 5 degrees Celsius by absorbing heat and re-emitting it in the near-infrared range.


  • A bendable processor from ARM could be the future of wearable computing. It’s far from a state-of-the-art CPU, and probably will never be one, but with further development could be useful in edge applications that require flexibility.
  • Google experiments with error correction for quantum computers.  Developing error correction is a necessary step towards making quantum computers “real.”


  • Attackers have learned to scan repos like GitHub to find private keys and other credentials that have inadvertently been left in code that has been checked in. Checkov, a code analysis tool for detecting vulnerabilities in cloud infrastructure, can now can find these credentials in code.
  • Amnesty International has released an open source tool for checking whether a phone has been compromised by Pegasus, the spyware sold by the NSO group to many governments, and used (among other things) to track journalists. Matthew Green’s perspective on “security nihilism” discusses the NSO’s activity; it is a must-read.
  • The REvil ransomware gang (among other things, responsible for the Kaseya attack, which infected over 1,000 businesses) has disappeared; all of its web sites went down at the same time. Nobody knows why; possibilities include pressure from law enforcement, reorganization, and even retirement.
  • DID is a new proposed form of decentralized digital identity that is currently being tested in the travel passports with COVID data being developed by the International Air Transport Association.
  • A massive ransomware attack by the REvil cybercrime group exploited supply chain vulnerabilities. The payload was implanted in a security product by Kaseya that is used to automate software installation and updates. The attack apparently only affects on-premises infrastructure. Victims are worldwide; the number of victims is in the “low thousands.”
  • Kubernetes is being used by the FancyBear cybercrime group, and other groups associated with the Russian government, to orchestrate a worldwide wave of brute-force attacks aimed at data theft and credential stealing.


  • Observability is the next step beyond monitoring.  That applies to data and machine learning, too, and is part of incorporating ML into production processes.
  • A new load balancing algorithm does a much better job of managing load at datacenters, and reduces power consumption by allowing servers to be shut down when not in use.
  • MicroK8S is a version of Kubernetes designed for small clusters that claims to be fault tolerant and self-healing, requiring little administration.
  • Calico is a Kubernetes plugin that simplifies network configuration. 

Web and Mobile

  • Scuttlebutt is a protocol for the decentralized web that’s “a way out of the social media rat race.”  It’s (by definition) “sometimes on,” not a constant presence.
  • Storywrangler is a tool for analyzing Twitter at scale.  It picks out the most popular word combinations in a large number of languages.
  • Google is adding support for “COVID vaccination passports” to Android devices.
  • Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid protocol appears to be getting real, with a small ecosystem of pod providers (online data stores) and apps.
  • Why are Apple and Google interested in autonomous vehicles? What’s the business model? They are after the last few minutes of attention. If you aren’t driving, you’ll be in an app.

Virtual Reality

  • Mark Zuckerberg has been talking up the Metaverse as the next stage in the Internet’s evolution: a replacement for the Web as an AR/VR world. But who will want to live in Facebook’s world?
  • Facebook is committing to the OpenXR standard for its Virtual Reality products. In August 2022, all new applications will be required to use OpenXR; its proprietary APIs will be deprecated.


  • The Open Voice Network is an industry association organized by the Linux Foundation that is dedicated to ethics in voice-driven applications. Their goal is to close the “trust gap” in voice applications.

Post topics: Radar Trends
Post tags: Signals