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2020, a year notable for its many setbacks, was also a year of remarkable progress for technologies like artificial intelligence as they continued to vault over longstanding R&D hurdles, not only advancing in the face of the global pandemic but demonstrating value as a novel means of coping with such challenges. Looking ahead to 2021, much of the same adversity endures, and how technology is posed to figure in our experiences of the coming months appears to be a question at large as the first week of the year ends.

If 2020 was the year people started to take AI for granted, suspending pessimism and embracing the value of these astonishingly powerful tools, 2021 is already seeing another likewise contested field of technology make similar strides: blockchain. After years of derision as an outlaw asset, cryptocurrency is now enjoying the backing of institutional investors on a scale never seen before, driving valuations even more voluminous than past Bitcoin rallies that are also seemingly less volatile. Potentially even more exiting are the ways the underlying blockchain technology behind the currency continues to mature in applications beyond financial markets, likewise with the backing of major industry movers in areas such as computing. As VentureBeat reports this week, a resource called Hyperledger that a number of companies have helped developed as an open-sourced enterprise blockchain development platform has found new life with contributions from IBM that are tackling challenges in big enterprise data, impacting everything from navigating global supply chains to enabling data sharing with confidence. As blockchain technology becomes a more clearly defined part of goods and services outside the financial instruments market, the potential for change across industries will likely surface in interesting ways in the months ahead.

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Within AI – still the true vanguard of disruptive technology – much continues to be said about GPT-3, the experimental NLP (natural language processing) phenomenon that captivated onlookers in 2020. As if in direct response to criticisms that it can generate entire essays without ever having a genuine thought about what it is saying, its creators at OpenAI entered 2021 with the announcement that they are combining the model with an AI designed to generate images (rather than speech or text) in hopes that it will result in an AI with a better overall knowledge of the world. More broadly, this suggests there may be a fair amount of consolidation and integration to come for some of 2020’s most striking breakthroughs, ultimately making them more practical and accessible in business or product scenarios than they previously have been.

Perhaps one of the best benchmarks for where we find AI this year comes on a lighter note, with reports from TechCrunch that a model developed at Google has found the statistical dividing line between cookies and cakes. As the model in question was designed to read only a list of ingredients and determine whether they came from a recipe for cake or a recipe for cookies, the natural curiosity of a 50/50 determination that was neither a cake nor a cookie inspired one AI researcher to bake it offline, apparently resulting in something entirely new with a foot in either confectionary realm. What exactly one should think of this is anyone’s determination, but the idea that AI can challenge human assumptions and discover insights outside of our thinking’s parameters (if baked goods can be called insights) seems to be cause for hope in everything from vaccine development and global health data reporting to our own experience of the world as mere mortals with a love of dessert.

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With plenty of real-world challenges to continue to apply it toward, 2021 should be just as much of a proving ground for AI and other technologies as 2020. As we enter the same challenges with clearer eyes than we had a year ago, better equipped to apply technology in meaningful ways simply as a habit of daily life, it will be interesting to see how recent breakthroughs filter into our lives as consumers, professionals, and individuals now living not at the cusp of but truly inside the era of AI, 5G, blockchain encryption, quantum computing, and the applications that are defining how we communicate, interact with information, and progress.

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