Seven technology trends that defined 2020

This year was a challenging one on multiple fronts. From the pandemic itself to all the social and economic woes that it brought upon us, 2020 has been a tough nut to crack. Luckily though, we had an important ally on our side: technology. Can you even imagine what this year would have looked like 20 years ago? Let’s not even go there.

It wasn’t just the pandemic — several fields boomed in 2020, although we may have not been always paying attention. In fact, it was a pretty remarkable year for science and technology. Let’s look at a few defining trends that defined the year.

A shift in work: working from home

Credit: Creative Commons (Standsome Worklifestyle / Unsplash).

Most of us started work wishing they’d go to the office less, but this is not what we had in mind. With COVID-19 being so contagious, it was essential that as many people as possible work from home. Of course, this was impossible for many, but if your job mostly revolves around you using a computer — the odds are you’ve spent a lot of time working in pajama pants this year.

As it turns out, we don’t really need to be in the office for much of the work we do. With widespread fast internet and so many instant communication channels, many organizations were able (at least to some extent) to adapt to working remotely. This trend also helped us learn a bit about ourselves in this period: some found it hard to work without being surrounded by people while others found it soothing and more efficient. There may be no substitute for human contact, but there is a substitute for office work and it seems like the future of work will never be the same, even after the pandemic ends. We’d be wise to adapt to it.

Telehealth and telemedicine

Credit: Creative Commons (Ceibos / Wikpiedia).

Among the people who found themselves working more from home, there was also an unexpected category: doctors. Some doctors, to be precise. While many health workers were on the front line of the pandemic in hospitals, others also did important work — from their homes.

Telehealth, the distribution of health-related services via long-distance communication, is one of the defining trends not just of 2020, but of the past years (which is why it was also the hot topic of the Virtual HLF in September). During the first quarter of 2020, the number of telehealth visits increased by 50% in the US — and it only went higher after that. The surge of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many procedures had to be delayed, and everything that could be done remotely (diagnosis, consultation, prescriptions, etc) was done remotely. From telecardiology (you can send electrocardiographs using your telephone) to teleneurology and even teledentistry, we’ve seen remote telehealth become a truly indispensable ally this year.

Home workout setups: from home cycling to VR

You’re probably seeing a trend here (although there’s still more than just remote working, I promise). Keeping ourselves healthy and sane is challenging enough through this period, but doing this while you have to stay home makes it even harder. So perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve seen a surge in home workout systems.

Working out at home is, obviously, nothing new. Stationary bikes and pull-up bars are also not a novelty. But we have seen an unprecedented technologization and diversification of these systems. Stationary bikes are so 2019 — in 2020, we wear virtual reality devices as we cycle through whichever part of the world technology can take us, and we use AI to optimize our workouts. Welcome to the future.

The age of CRISPR

For the first time this year, the genetic scissors CRISPR was legally used. The groundbreaking technology injected the gene-editing tool into the eye of a patient suffering from a rare genetic disorder that had rendered them blind. While the results of the treatment are still being analyzed, it’s an exciting moment that could pave the way for CRISPR to finally enter medical practice.

CRISPR technology is a simple but very powerful tool used to edit genes — it’s essentially the best gene-editing tool we have at our disposal. The discovery is relatively recent but it’s so important that it was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

AI and medical algorithms

While AI hasn’t been the messiah some were hyping it up to be, it has undoubtedly taken a more important role in 2020. From medical algorithms that can identify serious conditions from a smartphone to protein folding, AI is indeed showing that, at least in some areas, it’s already good enough to be applied (check our full article on this topic).

For instance, one AI proved capable of identifying prostate cancer from biopsies with the accuracy of an experienced practitioner. Another showed remarkable prowess in boosting skin disease diagnosis. Some companies have reportedly even used AI in their search for a vaccine, gaining valuable time that could put us closer to the end of the pandemic.

IoT and miniaturization

Credit: Creative Commons (courtersy of Jorge Ramirez).

We’ve already seen, for a time, that everything is becoming “smart”. It started with our phones — which nowadays are smartphones, it goes without saying — and then it expanded to things like traffic lights and vacuum cleaners. If we can make a ‘smart everything’, where objects from our day to day lives are equipped with sensors and communicating together, you have an ‘Internet of Things’ (yes, that is an actual term, and it’s usually abbreviated as IoT).

It’s hard to put a finger on one development in 2020, but several trends converged to bring IoT closer to reality. For instance, one recent paper highlighted how accessible and inexpensive sensors have become, and how much environmental data can be gathered with very little resources (and open code). Computers are also becoming smaller and cheaper, with single-board computers now already being commonplace. The fact that the world is starting to treat the IoT seriously was shown early in 2020 when Senate Bill No. 327 went into effect requiring manufacturers of connected devices to provide “reasonable security features”. Several countries are working on standards and security standards for IoT.

Drones for environmental monitoring and research

Drones are no longer just cool and fun instruments — they’re becoming more tool and less fun with each passing year. In 2020, a year that saw record deforestation in the Amazon, indigenous populations and environmental researchers are using drones to monitor the damage in remote areas. Increasingly, drones are being used for environmental monitoring, offering a low-cost alternative to conventional monitoring methods.

Drones are increasingly used in research, as well. For instance, they’ve become almost indispensable for modern archaeology, and they’re also used to monitor things like flooding or soil erosion. Drones aren’t just limited to the sky: underwater drones are also gaining popularity, with several groups already using them to study the oceans’ subsurface.

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Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He is the co-founder of ZME Science, where he published over 2,000 articles. Andrei tries to blend two things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place -- one article at a time.

3 comments

  1. The new everyday technologies of 2020 that you forgot about
    Working from home, tele health and telemedicine are not the only everyday technologies which took off in 2020. There are more, i will give you some examples:

    5G (citation from Wikipedia):

    5G networks are cellular networks, in which the service area is divided into small geographical areas called cells. All 5G wireless devices in a cell are connected to the Internet and telephone network by radio waves through a local antenna in the cell. The main advantage of the new networks is that they will have greater bandwidth, giving higher download speeds,[2] eventually up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbit/s).[4] Due to the increased bandwidth, it is expected the networks will not exclusively serve cellphones like existing cellular networks, but also be used as general internet service providers for laptops and desktop computers, competing with existing ISPs such as cable internet, and also will make possible new applications in internet of things (IoT) and machine to machine areas.

    Battery electric Cars for the masses with VW‘s ID.3 and ID.4, Teslas Model Y, Porsche Taycan, Upcoming Lucid Air, E-Hummer and many more. In 2020 150‘500 BEVs were sold in Germany, up from 63‘000 in 2019

    Self Driving Cars: In 2020, Waymo has a fleet of self driving cars in Phenix

    Plant Based (Fake-)Meat: the global plant-based meat market size reached a strong growth in 2019 and 2020. New SPINS retail sales data released March 3, 2020, shows that grocery sales of plant-based foods that directly replace animal products have grown 29% in the past two years to $5 billion.In the US of 2020 , Plant-based meat accounts for 2% of all dollar sales for retail packaged meat and approximately 1% of all dollar sales for total retail meat (including random-weight meat).*

    Tip: Don’t miss what’s changing your day and mine. .

  2. Many tech-websites publish their most important break-throuh technologies at the end of the year. One of them is Technology Review.
    MIT Review has a list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2020 (I edited the list by adding a short description for each point)

    1. Unhackable internet: quantum internet between Delft and the Hague planned for end of 2020
    2. Hyper-personalized medicine: „Too rare to care”-genetic diseases treated by one of the following methods: gene replacement, gene editing, or antisense
    3. Digital money: Facebooks plan for a stablecoin currency named Libra opens up the space for digital currencies as alternatives for existing currencies.
    4. Anti-aging drugs: senolytics are the first drug class intended to stop aging
    5. AI-discovered molecules: Scientists have used AI to discover promising drug-like compounds.
    6. Satellite mega-constellations: SpaceX Starlink constellations will place 4.5 more satellites into orbit then are currently in orbit
    7. Quantum supremacy: Google has provided the first clear proof of a quantum computer outperforming a classical one.
    8. Tiny AI: Google Assistant, Apples Siri and Apples QuickType keyboard helper now run locally on the smartphone on users’ phones without sending requests to a remote server.
    9. Differential privacy: A technique to publish data of study groups but keep it anonymous by adding noise
    10. Climate change attribution: Researchers can now spot climate change’s role in extreme weather

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