Tech’s Year in Review: Spacetech, AI, and Blockchain

artificial intelligence concept design with face

By Monika Ghosh and Reethu Ravi

This article is the second of a four-part Tech’s Year in Review series reviewing developments across industries in 2020. This second installation discusses some deeptech industries, namely AI/ML, spacetech, telecom and 5G, and blockchain.

The year 2020 has been a tumultuous year for the tech and startup industry. When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March, everything changed almost overnight, leaving companies across the globe scrambling for survival. While some sectors such as edtech benefited from the pandemic, several others such as the travel sector bore the brunt.

In this article, we explore the major events in AI/ML, spacetech, telecom and 5G, and blockchain sectors.

Artificial intelligence machine learning

While the past decade saw many revolutionary developments in the world of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the pandemic in 2020 accelerated the need to automate businesses and use AI and ML to gain deeper data insights.

Here are some of the AI/ML highlights from 2020:

  • Amid the increasing need to build AI systems that are easy to explain and that comply with non-discrimination and privacy regulations, Microsoft in May announced new tools to build fairer machine learning models.
  • The same month, Ocado Technology and researchers at four European universities completed development of a collaborative robot – or ‘cobot – which can recognize when a technician may need help and assist by providing the right tool or help with lifting.
  • In developments in the autonomous buildings space, BrainBox AI added temperature controls to the company’s AI system, which adjusts a building’s AC or heating output by predicting its thermal conditions based on data like weather forecasts. The technology can reduce carbon footprints by as much as 20% to 40% and was named as one of the best inventions of 2020 by TIME.
  • A football club’s AI-powered camera used to cast live matches through YouTube amid the pandemic made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The camera, designed to automatically track the ball using AI, instead tracked the bald head of a linesman.
  • In October, Google launched a new ML tool – Tone Transfer – that can transform humming into a beautiful instrument solo.
  • Google also added a “hum to search” feature to its search tools through which ML techniques can identify a song if you just hum (or whistle, or sing) it.
  • AI/ML also saw several applications to combat the spread of COVID-19 and to help with the vaccine research. The U.K. government used AI to process large number of reports on vaccine side effects. ML-enabled chatbots were used for contactless screening of COVID-19 symptoms and to answer public queries. ML has been helping researchers analyze large volumes of data to forecast COVID-19’s spread. AI has been used to identify mask rule violators, and drones have been used to monitor social distancing, among other applications.

Major investments and acquisitions in the industry

Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi announced in January its plans to invest over US$7 billion in 5G, AI, and IoT over the next five years.

In February, the Indian government announced its plan to invest Rs 8,000 crore (US$1.12 billion) over the next five years in quantum technology and its applications. The move will help the country to bridge its gap in quantum computing with the U.S. and China.

In September, NVIDIA, a global corporation that designs and manufactures computer graphics processors, chipsets, and related multimedia software, acquired British chip designer ARM from its Japanese owner, SoftBank Group, for a whopping US$40 billion.

This highly significant deal will help NVIDIA drive innovation in next-generation artificial intelligence and expand into larger markets. Discussing the deal, Jensen Huang, Founder and CEO of NVIDIA, said, “Our combination will create a company fabulously positioned for the age of AI.”

What to expect in 2021

As businesses continue adopting AI to automate processes, tackle inefficiencies, achieve greater customer satisfaction, and access business benefits, interest in this technology is only going to grow in 2021. As in the case with 2020, we can expect advancements of AI/Ml in healthcare, cybersecurity, finance sectors, facial recognition, augmented/virtual reality, and more, along with conversational AI devices such as chatbots and smart assistants.

In the healthcare sector, AI can make strides in making accurate diagnosis, developing new medicines, automation to process patients’ data, and the early detection and prevention of diseases, among others. In finance, AI can help detect fraud, facilitate trades autonomously, and help in risk prediction, investments, risk prevention, and more.

According to Gartner, we can expect AI to become smarter, faster, and more responsible. As many as 75% of enterprises is expected to shift from piloting to operationalizing AI by the end of 2024.

Spacetech

While the pandemic raged on in 2020, the spacetech sector reached new heights.

China became the third country after Russia and the U.S. to bring back samples from the moon. China’s Chang’e spacecraft successfully came back with lunar samples on December 16. The mission to bring back moon rocks was launched for the first time after approximately 40 years since the U.S.-Russia space race era.

NASA also reached a major milestone in the past year. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission successfully touched the surface of an asteroid, and came back with samples. This made U.S. the second country after Japan to obtain asteroid samples.

NASA also deepened public-private partnerships by selecting 17 U.S. companies, including startups, to develop spacetech for its Artemis program, which plans to put the first woman on the moon by 2024.

Here’s a look at the biggest highlights in spacetech last year.

Isar Aerospace raised biggest European spacetech funding

Munich-based Isar Aerospace, which is developing a rocket capable of launching big satellites, raised approximately $90 million just as the year was coming to a close. It was the biggest funding round raised by a European spacetech startup to date.

Isar will use the capital to fund the maiden flight of its launch vehicles. The startup’s launch vehicles would be capable of carrying a satellite payload of over 1,000 kilograms. Isar has started building a prototype and plans to expand production and testing capacity in 2021.

A record-setting year for SpaceX

Elon Musk’s spacetech startup SpaceX launched 26 missions in 2020, averaging one launch every 14 days. The startup broke its previous record of 21 launches set in 2018. But the number of launches was only the tip of the iceberg for SpaceX’s achievements this year.

The startup successfully launched astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) twice in 2020. The company took over doing so from NASA, which retired its space shuttle program in 2011 to devote its resources to sending astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, e.g. to asteroids, the moon, and Mars. Since then, NASA depended on Russia to send its astronauts to space, a significant expense. Outsourcing the task to SpaceX instead thus offered benefits in both convenience and cost.

SpaceX’s two successful manned flights brought back crew launching capabilities to the U.S. Moreover, Space X’s Dragon Capsule, used for launching the astronaut crew, became the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight.

India opened its space sector to private startups

NASA is not the only one furthering public-private partnership in the space sector. The Indian government also opened its space sector to private players last year, and set up a dedicated unit called Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre or IN-SPACe, to oversee spacetech innovation.

IN-SPACe has already signed an agreement with 2018 founded launch vehicle developer Agnikul Cosmos, to help provide the startup with access to the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) technical information and facilities.

Another startup, Pixxel, which is developing earth imaging satellites, also partnered with ISRO last year. Pixxel’s first satellite is set to launch on an ISRO PSLV rocket.

Skyroot Aerospace successfully test-fired its first solid upper stage rocket engine, making it the first private Indian company to do so. The feat brought the startup closer to realizing the goal of launching the first privately designed and developed rocket.

What to expect in 2021

  • Mars Mission: NASA’s Perseverance rover will try to land on Mars on February 18. The rover is on a mission to look for signs of ancient and present life on the red planet. The rover will also collect rocks and soil samples for testing back on earth.

Mars’ atmosphere is 99% thinner than the Earth’s and NASA plans to test a drone helicopter to see if it can fly in the Martian atmostphere. The drone is included with the Perseverance rover.

  • Pixxel’s first satellite launch: Pixxel’s first remote-sensing satellite is set to launch in February on an ISRO rocket. This would be the first time that a private company will use an ISRO rocket.
  • The launch of SpaceX’s Starship: Musk hopes that its Starship spacecraft will one day fly humans to Mars. Musk hopes that Starship will achieve orbit this year. NASA has invested around $135 million in Starship as part of its goal to return astronauts to the moon.
  • Launch of India’s Chandrayaan-3: Although the pandemic has disrupted the timeline, according to ISRO Chairman K Sivan said that India’s Chandrayaan, which will attempt to land on the moon, could be launched later this year.
  • Space Tourism: Later this year, SpaceX plans to fly a former NASA astronaut along with three private citizens to the ISS. The trip was purchased by Houston-based Axiom Space and will be the first fully private human spaceflight mission.

Blockchain and digital currencies

2020 brought massive changes to the world of blockchain and digital currencies. Here’s a look at the biggest developments in 2020.

Bitcoin price reached a new high

In December 2020, Bitcoin price crossed $19,892, breaking its 2017 record of $19,782.21. Over the last year, Bitcoin price increased over 200%. What set this price rally apart from the 2017 one was the heightened interest and involvement of institutional investors. Read our full analysis of the event here.

Since breaking its record, the largest cryptocurrency also broke through its $20,000 barrier last year, and is trading at a remarkable high of $33,360 as of Jan 4, 4:49 am UTC.

China leads the way to CBDCs

China’s sovereign digital currency program, called Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP), was pilot-tested across several cities in 2020. Not only did Chinese banks start working on digital yuan wallets for cross-border payments, but private sector players like JD.com started accepting it for payments.

Diginex-owned EQUOS.io became the first publicly-traded crypto exchange in the U.S

After raising $20 million, EQUOS.io became the first publicly-traded crytocurrency exchange in the U.S. in October 2020. The exchange was listed on Nasdaq, after its Hong Kong-based parent company Diginex completed its reverse merger and listed through a SPAC.

Although the exchange is listed in the U.S., it does not currently onboard U.S. customers. It didm however, open the floodgates for crypto IPOs. Coinbase, the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange, subsequently filed for an IPO in December 2020.

Hong Kong tightened its virtual assets regulation

In November last year, the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) of Hong Kong introduced new regulations for virtual assets (VA). The new regulatory framework requires centralized VA trading platforms to meet an increased number of compliance requirements.

The new regulations brought centralized VA trading platforms under the purview of the SFC. This means that the SFC can license and supervise VA exchange operators. Read more about the new regulations here.

What to expect in 2021

  • The launch of more CBDCs: China’s digital yuan has already reached millions of users during its pilot testing phase and is accepted by more than 3,000 merchants at present. The Bahamas has also launched its CBDC, Sand Dollar.

The world is still waiting for the world’s largest economies like the U.S., the U.K., France, and Japan to launch their CBDCs.

  • Tokenized stock trading: Cryptocurrency exchange Bittrex and FTX launched tokenized stock trading late last year. This allows users to trade smaller units of shares over the blockchain. Their prices are pegged to the value of the underlying stocks.

Tokenized stock trading is the next big revolutionary leap in the stock market. Tokenized trading can save a significant amount of money for traditional banks and financial institutions, and speed up payment settlements since blockchain allows for instantaneous settlements.

  • Traditional banks using blockchain and stablecoins for payment settlements: After JP Morgan launched its own blockchain unit last year, it is likely that more traditional financial institutions will follow suit.

According to JP Morgan, its blockchain unit can help it save almost 75% of the total cost of payment settlements. Moreover, the blockchain unit can help JP Morgan make payment settlement checks available in minutes rather than days, the bank said.

Ultimately, 2021 is poised to see rapid growth in the popularity of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, as well as stablecoins. Additionally, more and more traditional institutions and enterprises are likely to adopt blockchain to save costs and ease convenience.

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