Radar trends to watch: December 2021

Developments in Programming, Quantum Computing, Cryptocurrency, and More

By Mike Loukides
December 1, 2021
Warp Warp (source: Pixabay)

The last month had a few surprises. Three items about quantum computing—all of which appeared on the same day. You’d think they were coordinating with each other. And of course, everybody wants to build their own version of the metaverse. There are several takes on having avatar-filled meetings in virtual spaces. Unfortunately, this solves the wrong problem. The problem that needs solving isn’t making meetings better, it’s making them unnecessary.

AI, ML, and Robotics

  • A self-driving library?  This public library robot in Korea carries 100 books and drives around on sidewalks; people with library cards can check the books out.
  • Increasingly widespread skepticism over Artificial General Intelligence may be a harbinger of another AI Winter–or at least an AGI winter, since current AI techniques have found many homes in industry. We don’t have to worry about paperclips yet.
  • The US Department of Defense has issuedethical guidelines for the use of artificial intelligence by its contractors.
  • Facebook has built an AI model that can translate between 100 human languages in any direction without relying on data from English.  That model is now open source.
  • Israel’s Defense Force produced an AI-based (“deepfake”) video that animated photos of soldiers who died in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.  What does the ability to modify and fake historical documents mean for our ability to imagine the past and understand history?
  • Self-supervised learning with models that are heavily pruned can be used to build speech recognition systems for languages with relatively small numbers of speakers.
  • A framework to contest and justify algorithmic decisions is an important part of AI accountability. It’s not possible to redress harms if a decision cannot be contested, And it’s not possible to contest decisions if a system is incapable of offering a justification.
  • Facebook will stop using facial recognition technology and is deleting its face database, although it is keeping the model trained on that database. Out of the other side of their mouth, they have said this announcement doesn’t apply to Meta, which will use this model to produce VR products.
  • An AI system to give ethical advice gives unethical advice. What’s concerning isn’t the bad advice so much as the naiveté of the research project. Without a huge step forward in natural language understanding, and in the ability to reason about the history of human thought, why would anyone expect an AI system to do more than parrot back bad ethical advice that it finds in bulk on the web? Stochastic parrots indeed.
  • If language models are going to be more than stochastic parrots, they need ways to represent knowledge. Are knowledge graphs the key? The question of knowledge representation begs the question of what knowledge is, and how clever fakes along with recalcitrant ideologies both challenge the meaning of “knowledge.”
  • Unimaginable instruments may not exist in the physical world, but can be created (and played) with AI.  These instruments sense and understand music, and attempt to respond to what the musicians are doing and assist them. (Too many of these instruments sound like they came from the sound track of bad sci fi movies, but maybe that’s just me.)


  • The Deadlock Empire is a tutorial disguised as a game in which participants solve concurrent programming challenges to avoid deadlocks. This is an important new approach to online learning.
  • Because Git by nature tracks what changes were made, and who made those changes, GitOps may have a significant and underappreciated role in compliance.
  • ARM has joined the foundation promoting the Rust programming language, along with Toyota and 14 other new industrial members.
  • Is cloud repatriation (moving from the cloud back to on-premises datacenters) happening?  On-premises infrastructure will never disappear; there will always be some data that’s too difficult or important to move. And there are no doubt cloud projects that don’t deliver, and move back on-prem. But we don’t see a big shift, nor do we see “edge” as a new kind of “on-prem.”


  • Bringing back the browser wars:  In Windows 11, Microsoft has made it difficult to use a browser other than their Edge, and requires the Edge browser for certain functions that use the proprietary microsoft-edge:// protocol. They have blocked workarounds that allow other browsers to use this protocol.
  • Hydrogen is a new React-based web framework developed by Shopify, optimized for e-commerce.  It’s now in developer preview.
  • A bipartisan proposal in the US House of Representatives would require social media companies like Google and Facebook to offer users results that aren’t filtered by “algorithms.”

Virtual and Augmented Reality

  • Inhabitants of the Metaverse will face the problem of how to present themselves online: how to design appropriate avatars. This can lead to a new level of anxiety over physical appearance and presentation, particularly if the options presented are limited.
  • Niantic is also building a metaverse, based on its Lightship augmented reality development kit, which it has just opened to the public. Their take on the metaverse is that it’s bad for humans to stay indoors, cocooned in virtual worlds.
  • Microsoft will have its own Teams-based metaverse. It’s built on avatars, not presence, and is aimed at improving the experience of working from home.

Quantum Computing

  • A startup claims to have built a 256-Qubit quantum processor; they also have a roadmap to get to 1,000 Qubits in two years. They claim that their approach offers greater fidelity (accuracy) than traditional approaches.
  • IBM has built a 127-Qubit quantum processor, with a roadmap to get to 1,000 physical Qubits in two years.
  • IBM has claimed (without providing evidence) that they have achieved quantum supremacy by solving a problem that is unsolvable by classical computers. At this point, the reaction has been “interesting, but show us the data.”

Security and Privacy

  • Gmail adds confidential mode for encrypted email.  It’s not fully end-to-end encrypted (among other things, Google performs spam detection), but it’s by far the easiest approach to securing email out there.
  • Ransomware defense tips for small businesses from the US Federal Trade Commission: The first step is offline, encrypted backups.  The FTC also has a guide about how to respond to a ransomware attack.
  • Securing your digital life is an excellent four part series on personal security. (There may be more coming.)
  • A study (apparently in the UK) has reported that a third of the people working from home are subject to surveillance by their employer.
  • The international cyber surveillance industry is booming, and is becoming a serious international security issue.
  • Deception as a tool in defense against attacks: Traditional honeypots are old school.  Software development teams can build observable distributed systems that mimic real software, so that an attack can be safely monitored in detail, and developers can learn about vulnerabilities and techniques.
  • Attackers are stealing sensitive encrypted data and sitting on it, in hopes that when quantum computers are more widely available they can crack the encryption. That’s long term planning. This kind of hacking may be the purview of foreign states.
  • Most discussions of security focus on software. However, software is only part of the problem. Mitre has released a list of important hardware vulnerabilities.  Many of these arise from software embedded in the hardware–but regardless, programmers largely assume that the hardware on which their code runs isn’t vulnerable to attack.
  • Ransomware is targeting companies during mergers and acquisitions. It makes sense; that’s a period in which access to data is important and very time-sensitive.
  • Prossimo is a project of the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG) for discovering and fixing memory safety issues in Internet infrastructure code, and (more generally) to change the way programmers think about memory safety.
  • The Trojan Source vulnerability uses Unicode’s ability to handle bi-directional text to hide malware directly in the source code, where it is invisible. The code literally does not appear to say what it means.


  • The ConstitutionDAO is a decentralized autonomous organization that attempted to buy one of the original copies of the US Constitution. It’s a fascinating attempt to create an organization that exists on the blockchain but owns a physical object. What’s most fascinating is the many layers of traditional trust that are required to make this decentralized trustless organization work.
  • NFTs could be about a lot more than “ownership” of a URL. Because they are programmable, they can include behavior, and have the potential to create new kinds of markets.


Internet of Things

  • A server problem at Tesla made it impossible for Tesla owners to start their car with their app. Why hasn’t Tesla learned from the problems other IoT vendors have experienced with smart locks and other devices? Smart devices that don’t work are really dumb.
  • Operating systems for the Internet of Things:  The Eclipse foundation has launched Oniro, an open source multikernel operating system for small devices, hoping that Oniro can unify a fragmented ecosystem. Unification will benefit security and interoperability between devices.
  • The US National Institute of Standards and Technology’s “lightweight cryptography” project attempts to find cryptographic algorithms that are appropriate for small devices. Most current cryptography is computationally very demanding, requiring (at least) a laptop, and isn’t appropriate for an embedded system.

Learn faster. Dig deeper. See farther.

Join the O'Reilly online learning platform. Get a free trial today and find answers on the fly, or master something new and useful.

Learn more
Post topics: Radar Trends
Post tags: Signals