Radar trends to watch: January 2021

Trends in AI, Security, Biology, and More

By Mike Loukides
January 5, 2021
Foo Camp 19 interview

The last month of the old year showed a lot of activity on the border of AI and biology. The advances in protein folding with deep learning are a huge breakthrough that could revolutionize drug design. It’s important to remember the role AI had in developing the vaccine for COVID—and also worth remembering that we still don’t have an anti-viral. And while I didn’t list them, the other big trend has been all the lawyers lining up to take shots at Google, Facebook, et al. Some of these are political posturing; others address real issues. We said recently the tech industry has had a free ride as far as the law goes; that’s clearly over.

AI, ML, and Data

  • IBM has demonstrated that neural networks can be trained on 4-bit computers with minimal loss of accuracy and significant savings in power.
  • AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru was fired from Google. Her contributions include the papers Datasheets for Datasets, Model Cards for Model Reporting, Gender Shades (with Joy Buolamwini), and founding the group Black in AI.  This is a severe blow to Google’s commitment to ethics in artificial intelligence.
  • Debt, poverty, and algorithms: Opaque algorithms used for credit scoring, loan approval, and other tasks will increasingly trap people in poverty without explanation.
  • The past month’s biggest success in AI had nothing to do with language. DeepFold, DeepMind’s application of deep learning to protein folding, has made significant progress in predicting the structure of proteins. Predicting protein structure is computationally very difficult, and critical to drug discovery.
  • Microsoft points out that reverse engineering ML models are easily copied and reverse-engineered. Part of the solution may be setting up a deployment pipeline that allows you to change the system easily.
  • Integration between Python and Tableau: Tableau has proven itself as a platform for data visualization and business analytics.  Python is well-established as a language for data analysis and machine learning. What could be more natural than integration?


  • An attack (now known as Sunburst) by Russian’s CozyBear organization have penetrated the U.S. Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security departments, in addition to an unknown number of corporations. The attack came through malware planted in a security product from SolarWinds. It still isn’t known exactly what data has been accessed, or how to rebuild infrastructure that has been compromised. The attack may well be the most serious in cyber-history.
  • Acoustic side channels: A new and important front in the struggle for privacy and data security. It’s possible for an Alexa-like device to discover what someone typed on their phone by listening to the taps.


  • Some serious streaming: The world’s highest volume real-time streaming system is built with Go.  It streams stock quotes at up to 3 million messages per second.
  • Are Dart and Flutter catching on? I’ve been very skeptical.  But Business Insider thinks so.  (Forgive the paywall.) In any case, we need alternatives for web development.
  • Solving the travelling salesman problem in linear time: not with a quantum computer, but with an analog computer that models the behavior of amoebae! It’s an unexpected way to solve an NP-hard problem, and begs the question of whether analog computers can be integrated with digital ones–a suggestion that Von Neumann made early in the history of computing.

Operating Systems

  • Google’s FuschiaOS, a possible replacement for the Android’s Linux kernel, is now “open for contributions.” We see new programming languages almost on a daily basis, but new operating systems are rare. This could be an important event.
  • The end of CentOS Linux?  RedHat is killing CentOS Linux, and wants to move users to CentOS Stream, which appears to be a pre-release of the next RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) version–not a stable release. The community isn’t buying it.  CentOS may live on independently as Rocky Linux.

Quantum Computing

  • Quantum Supremacy with BosonSampling: Boson sampling is another computation that exists only to demonstrate quantum supremacy. It’s not useful, aside from showing that quantum computing is definitely on the way!

Biology and Medicine

  • A new drug appears to restart the brain’s processes for creating new proteins and, as a result, reverses cognitive decline due to aging. So far, experiments have only been performed on mice.
  • CRISPR is being used to engineer pigs so that they’re immune to a fatal and widespread virus called PRRS. Accuracy isn’t great (CRISPR is harder in practice than in theory), but there’s the potential for creating a breed of pigs that aren’t vulnerable to the disease.
  • The one bit of good news in the coronavirus story is that we’re seeing the fastest vaccine rollout in history.  But the Moderna (and Pfizer) vaccines were developed within days after the virus’ DNA was sequenced. The rest of the time has been spent testing. Can testing regimes be designed that are safe, effective, and much faster?
  • A sort of cyborg: drones using live moth antennas to detect scent. This could be used to detect explosives, trapped humans, gas leaks, anything identifiable by smell.  The antenna lives for a few hours after being removed from the moth. Presumably the moth doesn’t.
  • NextMind is shipping a relatively inexpensive ($399) development kit for brain interfaces. Their interface is non-invasive and relatively small: a headband with a lump on the back. Still no killer app, though.
  • Molecular analysis with Smart Phones: We thought that phone vendors had run out of sensors to add. We were wrong. Near infrared spectroscopy enables many health applications.


  • Leaving Silicon Valley: Tesla, now Oracle. Who’s next? And what will departing companies do to the real estate market?
  • Twitter’s proposal for Bluesky Identity, portable identity between social media platforms, was greeted with some skepticism when it launched roughly a year ago.  Tim Bray’s take on it is worth reading; it’s the “simplest thing that could possibly work” to enable cross-provider conversations.
  • Facebook’s cryptocurrency, Libra, is finally due to launch, possibly this month, if anyone cares.  And its name has changed to Diem. It’s much less ambitious and still faces regulatory issues, particularly in Europe.

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