Radar trends to watch: February 2021

Trends in AI, Programming, Quantum Computing, and More

By Mike Loukides
February 1, 2021
The ultimate guide to complicated systems

A lot happened in the last month, and not just in Washington. Important developments appeared all through the technology world. Perhaps the most spectacular was the use of Natural Language Processing techniques to analyze viral DNA. It’s actually sort of obvious once you think about it. If DNA is a language, then it should have syntax and semantics. And tools that don’t actually understand the language might have a unique ability to analyze it.


  • Can a fruit fly learn word embeddings? Researchers have modelled the structure of the portion of a fruit-fly’s brain that is used for smell perception, and trained that model for natural language processing. It appears to work, and requires a fraction of the training time and power used by current approaches.
  • Facebook is using AI to generate verbal descriptions of photos, which can then be read back to blind or vision-impaired users.  This application combines image recognition, concept recognition, natural language processing, and voice synthesis.
  • To train AI systems to evaluate pain in Black patients correctly, don’t train them to match doctors’ evaluations; doctors systematically undervalue pain in Black patients. Take the patient’s assessment as truth. This shouldn’t need to be said, but it’s important that it has been said.
  • The Allen Institute’s Genie is a human-in-the-loop tool for evaluation of synthetic texts produced by NLP. Genie coordinates the work of crowdsourced humans who annotate NLP output, among other things, standardizing their annotations.
  • Explainability is good, but it only goes part way. Can an AI system teach humans how it solves problems like the Rubik’s Cube? This is a new frontier.
  • Natural language algorithms can detect genetic mutations, specifically in Coronavirus.  Essentially, a mutation looks like a sentence that has changed its meaning. It’s a spectacular example of interdisciplinary AI applications.
  • Startups are offering tools to help monitor and audit AI systems for ethical issues like fairness and bias. This kind of business has been needed for a long time; Cathy O’Neil has been a pioneer in AI auditing. The world may be ready now.
  • Generating pictures from descriptive text with GPT-3: Another tour de force. If you can imagine it or describe something, DALL:E and CLIP might be able to draw it.  (Still, I’d like to know how many bad drawings they had to discard before they came up with the avocado armchair.)
  • Expressive Robotics: robots that understand (and can create) human expressions. This is an important step in making interactions between humans and robots less creepy. But more than that, it can be a safety issue. Can an autonomous vehicle read the expressions of bicyclists and pedestrians and use that to make predictions about what they will do?
  • RoboGrammar describes robot designs in a way that makes the physical design programmable and highly adaptable to different environments and applications.  It’s a step towards machine-learning based design tools for robotics.

Security and Privacy

  • A government (probably North Korea) is targeting security researchers in the US and elsewhere, using various forms of social engineering (including asking researchers to collaborate on a research project) and malware.
  • Guerilla tactics in the struggle against online surveillance: MIT Technology Review does a study of Ad Nauseam, a browser extension to create random ad clicks, and its effectiveness. The goal of Ad Nauseam isn’t so much to protect individuals, though it may do that; it’s to disrupt the entire advertising ecosystem.


  • The parent of all low-code languages, Excel, gets user definable functions. It’s now Turing-complete. Not just that, it’s a functional language.  (That is not a pun; functions are true lambdas.)
  • The new Raspberry Pi Pico is a $4 microcontroller board that can be used for almost any kind of project. It’s very cheap, widely available, and programmable in MicroPython.
  • Distributed systems from the command line: Posh is a data-aware shell that can send data-intensive processing tasks off to remote systems. It works by adding metadata to common UNIX commands for working with files.
  • Continuous documentation? Continuous all the things! Integrating tutorial style documentation (and testing of documentation) with CI pipelines as a way of helping new hires is certainly a new idea. Very few companies take documentation seriously; could this be the start of a trend?
  • RStudio is continuing to incorporate new features to support Python, including support for VSCode and Jupyter Notebooks. RStudio looks like it’s positioning itself as a general purpose (not language-specific) platform for data development.
  • Julia adoption continues to grow. We’ve been watching Julia for a long time. It’s not going to displace Python or R in the near future, but it has definitely become a contender.

Biology and Medicine

  • The Pandemic Technology Project is evaluating how tools like exposure-tracking apps and algorithms for determining who should get vaccinations are working in practice.
  • Senti Bio is building tools to make biology programmable: literally building control flow into genetic circuits, with the goal of programming better vaccines and other drugs. This is the future that synthetic biology has been looking for: is it possible to build medications that actually incorporate complex logic?
  • Japan’s COINS center is working on several moon-shot projects for medicine. A hospital in every body aims to develop organic nanomachines that live permanently in your body and can treat diseases autonomously, or send data outside for diagnosis and treatment planning.


  • Is the future of social media audio?  It’s an interesting thesis; even though Clubhouse has gotten poor reviews, there’s a new wave of apps designed for audio-based social networking. Discord is well-positioned; safety and content moderation are issues.
  • TabFS is a browser extension that allows you to mount your browser tabs as a filesystem. While this seems like gratuitous hackery, it means that just about everything a browser can do becomes scriptable with standard Unix/Linux utilities.
  • Webassembly Studio: There’s not much information, but this is clearly some kind of IDE for working with wasm, with support for projects in C, Rust, Web Assembly Script, and Wat (whatever that is). The existence of an IDE is more important than the IDE itself; wasm won’t succeed unless tools become widely available.

Quantum Computing

  • Quantum algorithms for nonlinear dynamics: We are slowly expanding the domain in which quantum computers will be able to deliver useful results. Nonlinear systems show up everywhere (fluid flow, hence weather, for example), but are extremely difficult to model with classical techniques.
  • Towards a quantum internet: Next generation networking might be based on the recent advances in quantum teleportation.


  • Are hologram capabilities the next step in smartphones?  Hologram projectors don’t require goggles or headsets; they could be what makes “virtual reality” real.
  • Google employees unionize: This union is less about collective bargaining than about social issues, and about non-employee staff (contractors, etc.) who don’t benefit from traditional collective bargaining.

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Post topics: Radar Trends
Post tags: Signals