The rise of robot therapy

The pandemic has starved many people of social interaction, the simple human need to have someone to talk to. Instead, we have had to make do with Zoom and phone calls.

But now that we have become used to digital companionship, the next step could be replacing the person on the other end of the phone call with software. 

In 2020, artificial intelligence lab OpenAI released a language model that imitates human conversation better than any program to date. Other ingredients, such as synthetic faces and voices, are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from real ones. 

Already, AI companions like Replika are fusing these technologies together to create virtual companions. Millions of men in China confide in Xiaoice, an AI girlfriend. Developers of these robots say that talking to an AI is akin to writing in a journal, a judgement free space that feels therapeutic, rather than an alternative to chatting to other humans. 

Many will find the idea preposterous. The same might have once been said about talking to someone over a telephone wire instead of in person.

Why: Rapid advances in AI and embrace of online communications during Covid have moved our comfort zones towards digital chat.

Why not: Talking to a machine is still far too strange to be considered by many. 

James Titcomb 

Widespread adoption of digital IDs

In a world where driverless cars and delivery drones are around the corner, the way in which we prove who we are remains remarkably quaint.

Digital identities have long promised much – including the death of the pesky password – but delivered relatively little.

That’s set to change next year thanks, in part, to vaccines. Airline executives, pub and club owners, and sports clubs may demand patrons prove they’ve had the Covid-19 jab.

Verifying vaccinations could tempt swathes of the population into using biometrics to prove their identity for the first time. It could also pave the way for an end to paper-based passports and driving licenses.

Indeed, the Government is already drawing up plans to allow the use of digital identities “as widely as possible”. Meanwhile there are a raft of British start-ups from Onfido and iProov to Veridium looking to excel in the sector, which is expected to be valued at $30.5bn (£22.6bn) within the next four years.

Why: If vaccination passports become a reality it will provide momentum for digital IDs to be used across a host of other services.

Why not:  A world of have and have-nots could emerge, depending on whether or not you’ve had the jab.

Michael Cogley 

3D printing your own home

For millions of homeowners flat-pack furniture has been the easy way to shape the house of their dreams. In the coming 12 months, those for whom property ownership has been out of reach may discover that flat-pack homes can turn their dreams into a reality.

The idea of 3D printing homes has attracted much attention this year. Councillors and government officials are becoming increasingly interested in the technology, which follows digital blueprints and pumps out layers of concrete and mortar to build a house.

Higher house prices are starting to attract 3D printing start-ups to Britain. Mighty Buildings, one of the leaders in the space, told the Telegraph in October that the UK was “great market that already understands the benefits of prefabrication and has a lot of opportunity to take that to the next level”. 

It may seem years away, but if 2020 has proved anything it is that mere months can bring about huge changes in how we live.

Why: Ministers under pressure to build more affordable housing across Britain as prices push ever higher.

Why not: Hurdles remain for companies building such properties, given tight levels of regulation, a tricky planning system and high land prices.

Hannah Boland 

Rollable smartphones

We have reached an awkward plateau when it comes to smartphones. Every year, Apple, Samsung and others announce their latest offerings, and every year they look essentially the same. The number of people upgrading to the latest rectangle of glass every year has dwindled as upgraded components like improved batteries and larger screens have failed to convince customers to hand over £1,000 for a new device.

So now smartphone manufacturers are experimenting with radical new designs in the hope that they can stumble upon the next hit form factor. Businesses like LG and Oppo have developed rollable screens which can unfurl to show even more of your favourite apps. This may be the solution to people wanting large, tablet-like screens but in small form factors similar to current smartphones.

Any leap forward in smartphone design takes years to perfect, though, and consumers will likely be forced to pay high prices when rollable smartphones go on sale in the first half of 2021.

Why: Major Asian electronics giants searching for ways to make their smartphones stand out are investing heavily into this new novelty.

Why not: Concerns over cost and durability mean it could be a niche form of smartphones for many years to come.

James Cook

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