If you think of business and technology in 2021, what are the three themes that generally describe developments that are most likely to have the biggest impact on the society over the next years?  Not just how brilliant they are, how good they look or how valued they are inside a particular industry, but how much they inspire the thought that a big change is about to occur, generating buzz and energy  that bring together various participants in different industries and society to build something that has a multiplying effect over time.  

For me, these are three themes that impressed me the most (the order is not indicative of their ranking) : 

1. Metaverse, Omniverse and the Twin Digital World

Many of us vaguely heard of metaverse before, but when Mark Zuckerberg announced the new direction for Facebook, metaverse exploded in the universe of media. Suddenly everyone in the digital consumer space started feverishly to develop a metaverse strategy of their own. The concept is not new, but this year marks the starting point when metaverse became mainstream business. 

NFT’s made a big splash an year earlier in the arts arena, but now, with the arrival of metaverse, NFTs are  becoming consumer products, mirroring the commerce in the real world. 

Real estate and fashion are among the first industries to move into this space. Nike announced the creation of a digital space called “NIKELAND” selling its branded wares in digital form. Real estate is already clocking large revenue numbers generated by sales of virtual land properties. 

Microsoft, Adobe, Nvidia, Roblox, Unity and many others are in a hurry to build a presence in this space. It is unclear at the moment how these universes are connected, what is open standard and what is proprietary. 

There are questions about security, privacy and true ownership of digital tokens purchased in this space. Bullying in the metaverse could be vastly more traumatic than on the old fashion Facebook. Are digital assets safe and portable from one metaverse to another? 

The VR and AR industry has undergone a sweeping makeshift gearing toward the metaverse concept. Similar to graphite and rare metals companies that have changed the appearance of their website to using green, images of nature, clean water and plants, the “old” VR and AR websites are changing their presentation by adopting a metaverse theme. Listed companies make announcements to impress present and future shareholders to lift the value of their share price by associating their brands with the metaverse (as an example, see the “sensitive” ASX press release by Singular Health (SHG) that “welcomes” Mark Zuckerberg for bringing the metaverse concept to the fore, something that Singular Health has already been working on proving that their products are “metaverse ready”).

Nvidia announced its version of the metaverse called omniverse. The key difference is that the objects created in the omniverse adhere to the real world physical laws. Everything is created with precise physical dimensions, weight, and other characteristics (porosity, softness, etc.). The purpose of this world is to create a twin digital world that mirrors the real world, with the creative flow going seamlessly both ways: create first objects and systems in the omniverse and use machinery to produce them in the real world, or the other way around. Omniverse is built for perfect simulation with applications ranging from manufacturing, prototyping, synthetic biology to education, arts and beyond. There is no limit. 

One other impressive aspect of the omniverse is its architectural foundation which multiplies the computing power of the omniverse platform (aka Nvidia): each object retains its properties and submits to physical laws by default. There is no need to make individual calculations. The laws are built in. I believe Nvidia will have a transformational impact at global scale and 2021 will mark the moment when Nvidia moves beyond engineering community into the broad public arena. It will be a stunner. 

2. The Tesla Bot

The announcement of Tesla Bot came up as a surprise. This speaks for the extent of two underrated developments: the speed with which technology evolves and the ability of Tesla to innovate.

Tesla’s advances in high performance computing neural processors has been applied with promising results in building self-driving vehicle technology. A new generation due to be released in a year or so will increase the intelligence and speed by a factor of 10. This will have a dramatic impact on the capability of a Tesla car to make decisions on the road without human assistance. Elon Musk already refers to Tesla vehicles as semi-sentient robots. The application of the same chip and the same architecture to build robots able to learn a different set of skills is surprising, but it makes sense. I discussed the context of this development in a much greater detail here.

Most “humanoid” robots built earlier are unique prototypes with intricate mechanical parts and artificial skin attempting to replicate human facial movements that are made during speech. The head is the most complex part and most of the computational power is spent on synchronising lip movement, speech production and recognition. Other parts of the human body have been replicated, such as hand and finger movement, legs and arms, but all of these are limited to movements largely pre-programmed with a rudimentary learning ability and minor spontaneous decision making. 

The Tesla Bot is the first to incorporate a high power neuromorphic system, with vast learning capability, designed to have considerable autonomy and ability to understand and execute physical operations in response to verbal commands.  It will be interesting to see its sensorial abilities and the range of movement, presumably in 2022.

It is hard to understand why media people are not falling over themselves at the sight of the 100% autonomous AI Nvidia avatar. Jensen Huang is an exceptional humanoid robot of the digital world. As we move into digital realm, some of the AI robots could be quite human-like and I suspect that very soon some of them will be very difficult or even impossible to distinguished from a real human.

In conclusion of this theme, I would say that 2021 is marking the beginning of the era of real humanoid robots. Their evolution starts now and it will accelerate in an exponential fashion, the same way microprocessors evolved following the Moore law starting in 1965 but at a higher speed and impact. 

3. Fight Against Climate Change Becomes Mainstream Business

This year it seems that the fight against climate change is finally on.  COP26 (Glasgow) is different. This time the gathering of world leaders has gone beyond rhetoric and adopted some pragmatic measures committing to net zero transition. The US state department in partnership with the World Economic Forum established the First Movers Coalition to provide a platform for leading global companies to accelerate the innovation and adoption of clean energy technologies. Over US$4tn will be invested each year by 2030 into clean energy technologies. The application of this partnership is to commit making purchases of products made with clean technologies. The expected effect of these commitments is to give a competitive advantage to clean innovators with amplified impact with the passing of each year. Participating countries have also have signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut 30% of methane gas production by 2030 (China, India and Russia did not join the coalition).

2021 is notable through the simultaneous and broadly dispersed business initiatives based on a combination of ethical, corporate cultural beliefs and strategic realities. Many of those initiatives have nothing to do with the governments in their original countries or countries of business but together have a significant impact promising to go beyond the targets set by politicians at COP26 in Glasgow.  If the future of our planet would be based purely on political funded projects, our future would be bleak. The myriad of business projects make up the invisible hand that drives the most profound changes in practice. 

The massive EV ecosystem is one of the industries with most positive influence on cleaning the planet, reduce and ultimately eliminate carbon emissions.  The Global Battery Alliance is perhaps one of the most impactful initiatives. I explained here how this partnership is transformational for the future of mining, with a high impact on eliminating carbon emissions, fight poverty and build a sustainable economic environment good for both rich and poor countries. 

For the first time in the human history raw mining materials and their derived products will have attached data passports that provide supply chain information about the certified history of each sub component and their key attributes (environmental impact, social equity, sustainability, carbon footprint, etc.). 

The EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) aims to put a carbon price on imports of products in selected industries (cement, iron and steel, aluminium, fertiliser and electricity). This has favourable financial consequences for clean producers and, by contrast, unfavourable consequences on those who have a bad environmental record. This proposal has vast implications to all major exporters of products to the EU which will be forced to invest in clean technologies to lower the cost on of doing business in the EU.

The private sector empowered by an efficient free market mechanism is important to the transition to a green economy. Australia is a great example. Still reduced to being labelled as a coal exporter, Australia hasn’t made a strong impression with its official government line on action for climate change. However, the private initiatives act as if the regulators have already applied drastic measures, so much so that in some cases government bodies scramble to catch up with the private business (NSW electricity system is an interesting case study, where companies investing in renewables, hydrogen and large batteries made the natural gas projects supported by government look awkward to say the least).  

The strategic decision made by Andrew Forrest, the founder of Fortescue Metals, to invest billions of dollars in green hydrogen promises to have a huge impact. While everybody took refuge at home during the Covid19 pandemic in 2020, he travelled to a number of countries around the world to established a number of key alliances aimed at creating a robust supply chain for a green hydrogen industry (he also did get infected by the virus during this trip). Thanks to his initiative, Australia with its large resources of renewable energy has a chance to become the leader in the production of green hydrogen and the largest exporter in the world. 

Until next year.