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Expected technological breakthroughs in 2021

Expected technological breakthroughs in 2021
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

While 2020 was a year that many would like to forget, it was also a year in which technological innovation, digital transformation and connectivity adoption, rapidly accelerated.

Across the UK, ordinary people, businesses and public sector organizations have come to depend on reliable and safe networks like never before.

As someone who oversees Huawei’s research and development (R&D) projects in the UK, including design centers, and collaborations with universities and business partners, I know about the extraordinary depth and breadth of technological innovation that happens here, and I fully expect to see a number of significant breakthroughs this year.

So what are these?

More ‘cross-pollination’ of industries, where research and innovation in different areas creates brand new technologies.

One particular area will be the intersection of AI and High-Performance Computing (HPC) with Life Sciences. The Life Sciences industry is making increasing use of big data, and AI is being applied to it, in order to make sense of the data. This kind of AI, and the processing of such vast amounts of data, requires HPC solutions.

However, HPC hardware and software does not come cheap and therefore I expect to see HPC-as-a-Service emerge as a new technology/opportunity.

Next generation fiber-optic communication technologies

As more and more applications use AI, HPC and Big Data, we’ll see a new generation of fiber optic technologies offering much faster internet connections, over much greater distances.

Moreover, these new fast fiber optic communications, which are the backbone of the internet, will need to be complemented by access technologies so I expect breakthroughs here too, particularly as 2021 is the year that 5G will really start to be deployed around the world.

Breakthroughs in 5G wireless medical assistance technology

Talking of 5G, as populations in many countries around the world continue to age, added to the huge ramifications of the pandemic, I expect to see breakthroughs in 5G wireless medical assistance technology, which can be accessed anywhere and anytime, driving a wide range of new apps, products and services.

This will include 5G VR enabled ‘medical telepresence’ applications where remote medical consultants can be virtually present in an operating theatre, either providing advice and guidance, or actually performing physical actions (via robots). Outside the operating theatre, a consultant will also be able to be virtually present when a paramedic team is treating a patient in their home.

Medical training will also experience breakthroughs. As an example, training in surgical procedures, which involves advanced techniques, has, until now, required training to be done in-person with experienced surgeons. But, with lockdowns still in place and the fact that some surgical procedures are not performed very often, training is neither straightforward nor in abundant supply.

But, new remote-guidance AR technology, which I expect to take-off this year, will allow surgeons to teach remote procedures by vocal instruction and by having their hands shown virtually on a screen, pointing to the ideal point of incision, for example.

With a good enough connection, a physical presence won’t be required and the help of the best surgeons will be able to be shared anywhere it is required.

These are just two examples of a wider technological trend we’ll see in 2021 towards the democratization of access to medical expertise, where the skills of medics will be made available to many more people than ever before.

A large part of what will drive these new technologies is 5G’s ability to deliver 5ms network latency, which allows incredible control of medical robotics. It is this low latency that will also be essential in making VR headsets and AR apps practicable not just in medical telepresence, but also in other industries such as entertainment, and allow videos to be transmitted with clarity and high definition.

Smart manufacturing is ripe for breakthroughs

5G and mobile edge computing will drive R&D and new value-added services within manufacturing industries and supply chains. We’ll see new innovations in wireless robots that are controlled through the cloud, plus other new wireless connection technologies that will make factories in 2021 more efficient than ever before.

Another breakthrough area will be in the use of VR Haptic Gloves. These are gloves that allow a user to feel the shape and density of a virtual object, through the use of force feedback on the user’s hands and fingers. Combined with a VR headset, these new applications will allow engineers to carry out remote tasks, like controlling a robot arm, and perform remote training, like training staff in a car assembly plant. Likewise, designers will start to use them to touch and evaluate new products, even before a physical prototype is made.

At the forefront of this is likely to be Cambridge Wireless, an industry body which allows participating companies, including Huawei, to test out new 5G manufacturing applications, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a breakthrough come from one of these businesses this year.

As we re-adjust our lives and rebuild our economies, I’m optimistic that the pandemic will spark many new technologies, related to almost every aspect of our lives - remote working, learning, entertainment, financial management, health care, well-being, and so on. I’m confident we are at the start of a new era in innovation for the greater good of society.

  • Henk Koopmans, CEO of Research & Development, Huawei UK.