Monday, 11 January 2021 13:32

Alibaba DAMO Academy's top 10 trends for 2021, from 'post-quantum-supremacy', to brain computer interfaces, AI R&D acceleration and more


Alibaba's global research initiative has compiled its must-read forecast of the fascinating leading trends that will shape the tech industry in the year ahead.

From the application of third-generation semiconductor materials, AI-driven R&D of medicines and vaccines, to automatic optimisation of data management systems and data intelligence-powered agriculture, technology breakthroughs are expected to accelerate and make impacts across sectors in the economy and the society at large, Alibaba's DAMO academy is working on next-gen projects that will change the world.

Founded on October 11th, 2017, Alibaba's DAMO Academy was created, with DAMO standing for "Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook".

Noting that "the future starts here" and that the academy is doing "research for solving problems with profit and fun", the organisation says it is dedicated to exploring the unknown through scientific and technological research and innovation, with the driving force behind the Academy being "the pursuit of the betterment of humanity."

Jeff Zhang, Head of Alibaba DAMO Academy and President of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence said: “Technology has played a critical role in the fight against the pandemic since early last year, and it will continue to reshape our society and industries through innovative production models and intelligent services.

“We hope to work with academia and industry players to accelerate the exploration of frontier research, in the hope that we can make technologies more accessible by various businesses, and together we can rise up to the challenges imposed by the pandemic and accelerate the pace of a digital economy,” added Zhange.

So, below is a video from the Academy’s predicted top tech trends in 2021, followed by a text version with more detail, please read on!

Trend No. 1: The application of third-generation semiconductor materials, represented by GaN and SiC, will expand to new industries

Third-generation semiconductor materials, represented by gallium nitride (GaN) and silicon carbide (SiC), boast high temperature resistance, high breakdown voltage, high frequency, high power, and high radiation resistance. However, for a long time, the application of these materials has been limited only to a narrow scope of fields due to their complex processing methods and high costs.

In recent years, breakthroughs in material growth and device fabrication have helped reduce the costs of third-generation semiconductor materials, making a wider range of applications possible. For example, SiC-based devices are used for automobile inverters and GaN-based fast chargers are emerging in the market.

In the next five years, the world will witness third-generation semiconductor materials spring up in areas such as 5G base stations, new energy vehicles, ultra-high-voltage power grids, and data centres.

Trend No. 2: Quantum error correction and practical utility of quantum computing will be the top priority of the "post-quantum-supremacy" era

The year 2020 is the first year to pass after quantum supremacy was achieved. In 2020, investors worldwide flocked to the quantum computing field, related technologies and ecosystems thrived, and numerous quantum computing platforms rose to prominence.

In 2021, this trend will garner further attention from all corners of society, so quantum computing must deliver enough value to make it worthwhile. The mission in the "post-quantum-supremacy" era must be aligned across the industry: to tackle critical scientific and engineering problems through collaborative innovation and to pave the way for quantum error correction and practical utility.

Trend No. 3: Breakthroughs in carbon-based materials will stimulate growth of flexible electronics

Flexible electronics deliver stable performance even after mechanical deformations such as bending, folding, and stretching. They are preferred in wearable devices, electronic skins, and flexible screens.

In the past, materials simply weren’t flexible enough or couldn’t compete with rigid silicon-based materials in terms of electrical characteristics. In recent years, groundbreaking developments in carbon-based materials have allowed flexible electronics to go far beyond their previous capabilities.

For example, carbon nanotubes are now used to produce large-scale integrated circuits that deliver better performance than silicon-based circuits of the same size. Graphene, a promising carbon-based material for flexible electronics, has also been put into large-scale production.

Trend No. 4: AI accelerates the R&D of medicines and vaccines

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology has been widely adopted to interpret medical images and manage medical records while its application in vaccine development and the clinical research of drugs is still in the pilot stage.

As new algorithms emerge and computing power reaches new heights,
AI will make it easier to complete R&D of medicines and vaccines that were previously time-consuming and costly.

Compound screening, disease model generation, target identification, lead compound discovery, and lead drug optimisation are some of the areas in which the technology excels. The integration will reduce repetitive work and improve R&D efficiency, benefitting the public, who can enjoy better medical care and pharmaceuticals in the near future.

Trend No. 5: Brain–computer interface technology allows us to go beyond the limits of the human body

Brain-computer interface technology is essential for new-generation human-machine interactions and collaborative intelligence between humans and machines.

This technology is the pillar and driving force of neural engineering, analysing how the human brain works from a higher dimension. A brain-computer interface forms a direct communication pathway between the brain and an external device.

It acquires, analyses, and translates brain signals to control machines. In future, brain-computer interface technology will help control robotic arms more precisely than ever before and help patients who are fully conscious but cannot speak or move to overcome their physical limitations.

Trend No. 6: Data processing will become autonomous and self-evolving

The rapid development of cloud computing and exponential growth in the amount of data have posed daunting challenges for enterprises around the globe. Manual management and tuning are unable to process massive amounts of data in diversified, complicated scenarios.

Therefore, AI-based automatic optimisation of data management systems will inevitably be the best choice for future data processing. AI and machine learning will be adopted in a variety of fields, such as intelligent cold/hot data separation, anomaly detection, intelligent modeling, resource scheduling, parameter tuning, stress testing data generation, and index recommendation.

This way, costs for computing, processing, storage, and O&M will be reduced and autonomous, self-evolving data management systems will be made available.

Trend No. 7: Cloud-native technologies will reshape IT systems

Long product development cycles and low R&D efficiency in traditional software development have long been a source of pain - cloud-native architectures featuring distribution, scalability, and flexibility look to be the cure, allowing enterprises to utilise and manage their heterogeneous hardware devices and cloud computing resources more effectively. With cloud-native methodologies, tool sets, best practices, products, and techniques, developers can focus only on creating new applications.

In the future, chips, development platforms, applications, and even computers will be cloud-native. Benefits include abstracting away many layers of infrastructure components such as networks, servers, and operating systems, reduced computing costs, improved technology efficiency, lower barriers to developing applications on the cloud, and expanded scope of cloud applications.

Trend No. 8: Agriculture will be powered by data intelligence

Traditional agriculture can suffer from inefficiencies caused by poor land use and a disconnect between the production and retail sides. Today, digital technologies including Internet of Things (IoT), AI, and cloud computing, are being applied to the agriculture industry from the production process through to retail.

Sensors help obtain real-time farmland data. Big data analytics and AI expedite the processing of large amounts of data. Farmers can monitor crops, implement precision breeding, and allocate environmental resources on demand. In addition, technologies such as 5G, IoT, and blockchain are used to control and trace the transportation of agricultural products, ensuring their safety and reliable delivery.

With these new-generation digital technologies, agriculture is no longer dependent on the natural conditions and will be driven by intelligent data analytics.

Trend No. 9: Industrial intelligence leaps from single-point implementation to industry-wide implementation

Industrial intelligence has been mainly used to meet partial requirements because its implementation is costly and complicated, data at the supply side is isolated, and the ecosystem is immature. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, the resilience of the digital economy drew attention from enterprises, technologies developed and spread rapidly, and more investments were injected into the construction of new infrastructure.

This has helped build a picture where we can see industrial intelligence leap from single-point implementation to industry-wide implementation. This is true particularly in manufacturing industries that have mature IT systems, including automobile, consumer electronics, high quality clothing, steel, cement, and chemical industries. Industrial intelligence will spring up in every corner and help closed-loop decision making in these industries.

It will make an impact on a large scale, applying to the supply chain, production, asset management, logistics, and sales.

Trend No. 10: Intelligent operations centres will be a must for cities of the future

Smart city initiatives were first launched a decade ago and have sparked significant improvements in city governance through digital technologies. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought several challenges for smart cities.

To combat this, intelligent operations centres will be deployed to maximise the usage of data resources and promote global, fine-grained, and real-time governance and public services. Additionally, as the Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT) matures and spatial computing technologies are improved, operations centres will become even more intelligent.

By keeping "digital twins" of cities, intelligent operations centres consider each city as a unified system and deliver city-wide services capabilities - these will become the digital infrastructure for cities of the future.

Separately to this list of top trends for 2021, Jeff Zhang gave a keynote presentation at Alibaba's Aspera 2020 conference in September last year, showcasing his thoughts on the future of digital intelligence.

Also, an INFOGRAPHIC of the trends above is posted below the video for those wanting to see it. 

The presentation is in Mandarin, but the included English subtitles make following it all easy, so here it is in full! 

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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