Radar trends to watch: March 2021

Trends in AI, Ecology, Finance, and More

By Mike Loukides
March 1, 2021
Explosion Explosion (source: Pixabay)

For a short month, a lot happened in February–perhaps because the US elections are behind us, perhaps because COVID case numbers are dropping, perhaps for any number of reasons. Some of the most interesting articles I’ve seen have been about the Internet of Things, ranging from wireless peas to Elon Musk’s neural interfaces.

AI and ML

  • An AI system is being used to train crisis counsellors. Roleplaying plays a critical part in training staff at suicide prevention services. The AI plays the patient, freeing staff so that they can spend more time helping clients, rather than training other staff.
  • Google, in firing Margaret Mitchell weeks after Timnit Gebru, has abandoned any pretense of ethical leadership in AI. What signals does a company send when it fires both leaders of the best ethics research team in the industry?  The paper Gebru and Mitchell co-authored with Emily Bender and Angelina McMillan-Major, On the Danger of Stochastic Parrots, is a must-read.
  • How an AI algorithm learns has an impact on bias and fairness: it’s not just training data. Harder examples are “learned” later, and attempts to shorten training forego accuracy for these portions of the training data.
  • Researchers are using generative neural networks to create synthetic human genomes.  These genomes are then used for research in genetics.  They aren’t subject to privacy restrictions because they don’t belong to anyone. Creating synthetic data isn’t a new idea, but this research pushes the limits in a spectacular way.
  • It’s not really surprising, but MIT reports that training predictive policing algorithms on crime reports rather than arrests doesn’t make them less racist.
  • Spotify has filed a patent on monitoring users’ speech to help it make recommendations. They’re looking for gender, age, emotion, ethnicity (via accent), and whether the user is alone or with others. It’s possible that this patent will never be put into production.


  • Building a digital twin for the Earth as an aid to modeling and decision-making is an aid to making precise predictions about what the future holds. The model will incorporate data on all aspects of the earth, including the impact of human systems. Whether building and running this model will take more energy than is used to mine Bitcoin is a worthwhile question.
  • The Texas power outages are a new chapter in the same old story, lack of investment in infrastructure: many of last year’s fires were due to infrastructure problems, as were massive outages in other states. We need to re-think the US power grid, which is not ready for the transition to renewable resources.
  • Hydrogen may play a role in reducing carbon emissions. Using wind or solar power to produce hydrogen by electrolysis might be an effective way to store energy, though that begs the question of how hydrogen itself is stored.


  • Over the last decades, APIs have evolved from complex (RPC) interfaces to REST to GraphQL, and in doing so, have enabled new business models based on disaggregating services. Where is the evolution of APIs headed?
  • Microsoft’s DAPR reaches 1.0: Microsoft’s Distributed Application Runtime (DAPR) is an open-source attempt to make Kubernetes less difficult. Now that cloud services themselves have largely been commoditized, this is the level at which cloud vendors will try to control.
  • Low-code databases have been around since Microsoft Access (1992); they’re proliferating as data democratizes, enabling people who need to work with data to build the tools they need. Joe Hellerstein’s New directions in cloud programming is proposing programming languages that take cloud computing “beyond serverless.” The idea is to decouple semantics, availability, consistency, and optimization. This may free cloud computing from the complexity of Kubernetes and other orchestration technologies.
  • Procedural Connectivity is a technique that radically reduces the storage required for large simulations. Programs that required a supercomputer can now run on a laptop with a GPU.


  • Web programming without frameworks: Is “the stackless way” the route to simplification? For many web applications, JavaScript Modules and Web Components may be the path away from React and Angular.
  • Hotwire is a new minimal-JavaScript web framework that relies on Rails for the backend. Developed by @dhh. Do we really need another JavaScript framework?
  • No more third party tracking cookies: The Chrome browser will cease to support 3rd party cookies, in favor of a Google alternative called “federated learning of cohorts” (FLoC). FLoC is a win for privacy; it also tips the balance of power in advertising further in Google’s direction.


  • Will the response to COVID push us into the era of data-driven medicine? If nothing else, it has taught us what’s possible in a limited amount of time.
  • Using neural networks to discover antibiotics isn’t a new idea, but researchers appear to be making progress, both in discovering new compounds and in discovering new mechanisms.
  • mRNA (messenger RNA), the basis for the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines, is useful for many applications.  There’s potential for treating genetic diseases (like Sickle Cell Anemia), HIV, and many other conditions. COVID may have pushed us to make a great leap forward.


  • Spinach that can send email: The spinach has been engineered to detect certain chemicals in the ground, and send a wireless signal to sensors. This clearly has big implications for precision agriculture and for an internet of (living) things.
  • Computing touch: ShadowSense can give soft robots the ability to sense “touch” using cameras to analyze shadows. Does this pave the way for interactions between robots and humans?
  • France is requiring manufacturers to publish a “repairability index” with their products to minimize the creation of waste.
  • Elon Musk’s Neuralink hopes to begin human trials of (wireless) direct computer-brain interfaces this year. Fixing neurological conditions like paralysis is one thing, but I worry about unmediated social media.
  • Beyond 5G: Transceivers for digital communication in the 300 GHz band.  That is very unknown (and unused) territory.


  • More supply chain attacks: a researcher demonstrated that it was possible to insert code into corporate projects by uploading modules to package managers (npm, Ruby Gems, pip) that matched the names of internal packages.
  • API-first brings its own set of security problems. APIs by definition have large attack surfaces. Developers need a better understanding of security basics, along with better systems for detecting attacks in real-time.


  • China is way ahead of the rest of the world (including the US) in developing a virtual currency.  Their goal is to replace the dollar and become the standard currency for the international monetary system.  This would give them a highly detailed view of the flow of money (down to individual transactions), both within China and internationally. However, China also sees virtual currency as a means of increasing social control within the country. These two objectives seem mutually exclusive. It will be interesting to see how they bridge the gap.
  • Major credit cards and other institutions are beginning to adopt cryptocurrencies for payment.
  • The Gamestop short squeeze is a new phenomenon: a meme threatening Wall Street. Whether it was just a meme that grew without control, or an intentional movement to punish hedge funds, it’s once again apparent that social media can break the assumptions on which “business as usual” depends.

Quantum Computing

  • The biggest problem facing quantum computing is error correction.  Is a fault-tolerant quantum computer possible?  Some intriguing results show that it might be.

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Post topics: Radar Trends
Post tags: Signals