by Cara Kuhlman & Taylor Soper on January 2, 2021 at 9:05 amJanuary 2, 2021 at 11:29 am
An “incredibly dynamic year of change,” a “new hope,” and a “gangbusters” year in which the tech sector will come “roaring back.”
Those are some of the phrases used by Pacific Northwest tech, science and business leaders to describe their outlook for 2021 ― offering a sense of optimism as we emerge from an extraordinarily challenging year.
Of course, the events of 2020 showed that making accurate predictions can be nearly impossible. But they also left us with a flurry of unanswered questions about our collective futures: What direction will the tech industry take in the year ahead? What will the recovery look like? When (and how) will U.S. workers return to the office? Which innovations will define the coming year? Which technologies will be overhyped? And how can startups position themselves to succeed?
GeekWire surveyed CEOs, tech execs, investors, professors, AI experts, and others from a range of industries and organizations in the Seattle region and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest to get their take on the next year.
Artificial intelligence, and specifically natural language processing, won multiple nods as the hottest technology of the upcoming year. But virtual health, mRNA, gene editing, and video conferencing also received mentions.
In addition to their general optimism about rebounding from the pandemic, some respondents expressed concerns about the lingering impact of the past year. For example, while virtual meetings have filled an important gap, the lack of in-person collaboration may or may not be good for innovation, said Peter Lee, corporate vice president of research and incubations at Microsoft.
“I think by the middle of 2021 we might actually see some signs of whether the pace of innovation is being affected — in a positive or negative way,” Lee said.
Respondents also expressed concerns about the role of technology in social justice and equity, and said this moment represents an opportunity to do better.
“The tech industry has contributed to polarization through the various social media platforms that we developed,” said Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, calling on the industry to focus on “developing tools to help bring people together.”
Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI, said 2021 “will be the start of a renaissance in tech as people prioritize jobs that have real and direct benefit for humanity and the planet. The days of building tech for tech’s sake are gone, it’s time for the tech industry to realize its ethical responsibilities.”
Continue reading for full responses. Also listen to the latest episode of the GeekWire Podcast, above, for insights from Peter Lee, in addition to his written answers below. Subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app.
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? I think the smartest companies will have a much bigger emphasis on themes around unity and equity. Ideas such as “conscious capitalism,” which seek to align social responsibility with business growth, will get more attention.
The reason: In a world that seems to be getting more polarized and balkanized, it will become really important to ensure that technologies are available to all and serve to bridge divides. It’s not just feel-good, but likely essential for achieving growth and scale. And let’s face it, there are parts of the tech industry that need to do more to earn trust from people (e.g., for privacy concerns) and institutions (e.g., for antitrust reasons). In 2021 that trust will be tied directly to growth and scale.
A second theme that I think will emerge is the idea of “resilience,” by which I mean providing tech infrastructure that smooths out “shocks” to a person’s life or organization’s operations when major crises hit. As the economy starts to show signs of recovering, there may be a mandate in organizations and institutions everywhere to invest in resilience.
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? Nurturing a great workplace culture, and associated with that, an environment where great technologies can get invented. At least in the USA, Europe, and UK, it is looking like we are in for quite a few more months of having people work mostly remotely. This makes me wonder what that will mean for the process of innovation— so much of the invention process traditionally happens in “garage” type settings that have been designed and tuned over decades to stimulate and “catch” great ideas. I think by the middle of 2021 we might actually see some signs of whether the pace of innovation is being affected — in a positive or negative way.
How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? The nature of work and life has changed in some really fundamental ways. A lot of these changes are probably permanent, and most depend in one way or another on cloud computing. This is big for the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem since we are home to the two largest cloud providers. Companies, startups, VCs, etc. that specialize in helping people and companies harness the cloud – especially in industries like healthcare, transportation, government, manufacturing, financial services, retail, logistics, etc. – could really go into overdrive in 2021.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? I’m hoping by mid-to-late summer. In some parts of the world where COVID-19 is largely under control, such as China, our offices have reopened fully, though employees there have options that allow them to work partly or entirely at home. What we are seeing is that the vast majority come back to the office when given the chance, even though rush-hour commutes can be horrendous. And while every part of the world is different, I expect this to be a common pattern everywhere.
The hottest technology of 2021: Is it too obvious to say “AI” (again)? We may see trillion-parameter pre-trained NLP models in 2021. One of the things we saw in 2020 was a kind of arms race amongst the big tech companies involved in building in extremely large pre-trained NLP models, such as GPT-3, or Microsoft’s Turing, with hundreds of billions of parameters. The capabilities of these systems have surprised even the deep experts in the field.
In 2021 we’ll see this technology leap fully from lab to products, not only for handling language tasks (e.g., auto-writing emails, reading documents in any language and smartly answering questions about them, etc.) but also vision (e.g., interpreting videos and medical images) and even problems in biology (e.g., protein structure prediction and generative chemistry for drug discovery).
The most overhyped technology of 2021: I guess three of the technologies that are always mentioned on these “most overhyped” lists are blockchain, virtual reality, and self-driving cars. Blockchain and VR are getting a lot of new hype, with blockchain mentioned in areas like vaccine credentials, and VR to make home isolation more fun. But as great as they are, both probably need more time to flip from hype to hot. And self-driving cars, well, while we may actually see some really interesting products hit the market in 2021, there is a lot less driving going on nowadays. We’ll want to revisit all three in 2022…
Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: Gosh, I have no idea. 2021 is going to be largely about the shift from pandemic response to pandemic recovery. That would normally mean fairly flat or low growth in the stock market, but on the other hand there is a ton of pent-up demand for great investment opportunities, including not only the public markets but also startups. The fourth quarter of 2021 could be pretty darn exciting. But fair warning: if history is any guide, whatever I say, you should do the opposite… 😊
Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Think of the three phases of a global crisis: Response – Recovery – Resilience. If 2020 was about Response, 2021 will be about Recovery. Your company/investment needs to be relevant to that. But even more important is to think about the technologies you are developing for the next long phase, which is about Resilience for the future.
One phrase to describe 2021: 2021 will be an incredibly dynamic year of change, focused on recovering from the pandemic.
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? While the COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out and providing us with hope that 2021 will be a better year than 2020, we are not out of the woods yet and we should plan for 2021 being fundamentally a highly disrupted year.
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? It will be a fundamentally disrupted year.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? At this point it looks like fall 2021. But some sort of hybrid “work from home / work from the office” approach will likely be a lasting impact of the pandemic.
The hottest technology of 2021: We can expect that AI (and generally everything ML-driven) will remain a super hot technology in 2021, especially with applications in medicine and other areas. Teleconferencing technology should continue to evolve rapidly as demand will remain.
Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: I predict that Seattle’s societal problems will persist and will continue to worsen in 2021. We, unfortunately, do not seem to be on any path toward recovery at this time. These are very difficult problems and we are in a difficult situation.
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? Many are actively questioning what work truly makes a difference, and who they will work with post-COVID. This will be particularly impactful for people in tech, who are in high demand, and have a wide variety of choices. 2021 will be the start of a renaissance in tech as people prioritize jobs that have real and direct benefit for humanity and the planet. The days of building tech for tech’s sake are gone, it’s time for the tech industry to realize its ethical responsibilities (see The Hippocratic Oath for AI).
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? Antitrust lawsuits and regulation for Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Fairness for the rest of us.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? By July, but the office/WFH balance will change irrevocably.
The hottest technology of 2021: Natural Language Processing. GPT-3 is the tip of the iceberg. Similar models will emerge that will be cheaper, faster, and more widely available.
The most overhyped technology of 2021: It will still be VR. “Our vision is that VR / AR will be the next major computing platform after mobile in about 10 years.” — Mark Zuckerberg, 2015.
Nasdaq final close on 12/31/21: The stock market is unpredictable in the short term, but by 2031 the Nasdaq will be at least 50% higher than it is today.
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? From a biotech standpoint, these events have already had a profound impact on our industry and the changes will continue and accelerate in 2021 and beyond. Collaborations forged more swiftly, greater risk taking by entrepreneurs fueled by plentiful investment capital and an acceleration in the convergence of multiple technologies will propel innovation across all biotech and life science sectors, benefitting human, animal and environmental health.
The “awakening” to what it means in 2020 to be a person of color, particularly a black person, is driving long overdue change to address systemic racism in all of our public and private institutions. The challenges are enormous, but equally so the opportunities, particularly in the life science sectors. As the leader for Life Science Washington, I am excited about the possibilities to make meaningful, sustainable changes in how our member companies reach, educate, hire and mentor BIPOC; recruit, welcome and retain women and BIPOC board members; and engage BIPOC in all clinical trials in proportion to their percentage in the target population.
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? Again, speaking from a biotech/life science perspective … we are witnessing breathtaking innovation in new treatments — and even some cures — for horrible diseases and conditions thanks to a new generation of platform technologies, such as gene editing and other cell therapies. These treatments are improving the quality of life for thousands of Americans every day, but come at a very high price tag, commensurate with the costs of their development.
As a society, if we want broad access to these life-saving treatments, we must figure out how to pay for them. And as an industry, we must come to the table with sound policy options that facilitate continued investment in innovation and a resolution to drug pricing issues that are becoming barriers to that investment.
How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? Our region is very well positioned to capitalize on the huge inflows of investment capital into biotechnology and other tech sectors over the past year which are projected to continue for at least another year if not longer. Success begets success and our region is HOT, with lots of attention focused here due both to the pandemic and the massive convergence of technologies and collaborations taking place between tech giants, such as Microsoft and Amazon, life science companies, research institutes, global health leaders, and world class medical centers.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? Late Q3/early Q4.
Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Startup and funding activity in the life sciences is incredibly strong and investors are looking for new opportunities. So, get busy and take advantage of the incredible opportunities you now have access to as a result of the pandemic and stringent limits on in-person gatherings.
Virtual events provide you with equal access to education, networking opportunities and funding regardless of where you and members of your team are located. This significantly levels the playing field because you no longer have to travel for seminars, networking, pitch competitions, or investor meetings.
Take advantage of remote workshops or mentoring to develop your pitch and then take that pitch “on the road” very affordably by connecting through virtual partnering sessions at workshops or pitch days.
Schedule as many partnering meetings as you can at the major industry meetings and do it from the comfort of your home.
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? On the whole it will continue to grow and be strong. The pandemic and social justice movements only accelerated adoption of technology, especially in industries that were slower to adopt before. I believe we will continue to see strong pressure on businesses to improve their diversity efforts but it will continue to take time. Sidenote: Quite interested in seeing how AI continues to develop in relationship to social justice.
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? I think for the tech industry and others, moving toward a new “normal” will be the most pressing. 2020 was a year of frustration, reflection, and using technology to connect. Consumer demands will be greater and companies will need to navigate how they balance growth with social responsibility.
How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? Hopefully, there will be a flood of new companies with people changing jobs, working from home, and committing to doing something of meaning with their life over working a standard 9-5 job.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? For knowledge workers, I don’t believe there will ever be a full return back to the office. It will be more of a hybrid starting when vaccines are made more widely available.
Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Focus on doing good work, hustling, and serving your customers. It’s easy to get distracted by all the things you can do or build, money, or the latest news on who raised how much money or went public. Build a solid business. The opportunity is now — you’re bringing innovation at a point where all businesses and industries have been disrupted.
Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: This year taught me not to make predictions.
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? We can expect to see tech companies, both established and startups, embrace even more an alignment of their purpose with social justice movement values. We can also see a continuing uptick in the collaborations across geographies amongst tech founders and investors, as virtual networking and connections become the new normal. The economic recession has proven the resilience of the technology industry, so we can expect a surge in interest of new talent attracted to join the tech industry.
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? In an era, where anything tech creates an exaggerated excitement, the industry will need to self-regulate for bubbles and hype. This will not be important for just maintaining healthy economics but also meeting expectations and trust that people are placing in tech.
How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? As a region, the Pacific NW should continue to thrive but major urban centers within it will face fresh challenge from neighboring smaller communities, who will make it attractive to attract talent.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? I see a vast majority of companies waiting for the 2021 fall flu season to pass, before the office doors are open to the regular workforce.
Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Uncover next set of bold business ideas currently unimaginable that will be made possible with 5G speeds.
Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: The divide between those who benefit from the tech revolution and those who are observing it from sidelines will continue to grow. A younger demographic will make its presence felt even more in global politics. Age old political issues will get a second take, as people wake up from the 2020 jolt!
How will this year’s events — the pandemic, social justice movements, economic recession — affect the technology industry in 2021? I believe the events of 2020 have pushed innovation across many industries, including the biotechnology industry. The need to innovate to ensure viability is something that can help us be better positioned to make major improvements that could positively impact drug development.
What will be the most pressing issue facing the tech industry in 2021? The workforce has adjusted to embrace remote work, but there still remains a need for continuity and connections that can be easy to overlook when working distantly. Companies will need to determine how to properly combine the benefits reaped from remote work while still fostering strong company cultures.
How will the Pacific Northwest innovation ecosystem change in 2021? We look forward to seeing a healthier community in 2021. The pandemic brought to light challenges in the healthcare system, but many interdisciplinary groups have worked together to address these challenges. I hope there will be even more of an emphasis put on the health and safety of people.
When do you predict companies will feel safe returning employees to the office in 2021? I’m hopeful this will happen in June 2021 – in line with anticipated mass vaccination or herd immunity.
Advice to startups and entrepreneurs for 2021: Find a way to make things happen. We don’t know what 2021 or beyond will bring, don’t wait for a “perfect time” to do what you want to do.
One phrase to describe 2021: The opportunities are there — just find the right path and don’t take “no” for an answer.
Other bold predictions for 2021 in tech, politics, sports or anything else: I think the speed of how COVID vaccines were advanced will push biotech and pharma to accelerate advances across many different areas that will have long-term impacts. I’m hopeful so see similar collaborative efforts to advance improvements in public health including for neurodegenerative diseases.
The Think Tank podcast: What happens when you bring together two bright minds to tackle healthcare’s challenges? This isn’t your typical brainstorm between healthcare experts. No, this is a supercharged session between two minds that work in similar, but very disparate industries. Our guests talk about a broad challenge they face and discuss how they’ve approached the problem in their respective fields. The magic? To see how their approaches to a challenge can be applied to another industry to spark new avenues of innovation. This series is about creating synergy between two different, but very like-minded experts.
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