NASA / WIRED
Ah, 2020. It’s safe to say that the last year – all things considered – was not a good one. For a writer whose present task is to write a witty and irreverent look at the year ahead in technology, 2020 isn’t exactly a goldmine of hidden hilarity just waiting to be uncovered.
But exceptional circumstances beget exceptional acts, so it is little wonder that the world’s tech titans have really stepped up to the challenge of plumbing new depths of irony and egotism. After months of downplaying the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was only fitting that in November Elon Musk was forced to watch SpaceX’s first fully-fledged crewed mission to the International Space State from the comfort of his own home.
In the same month Netflix engaged in the age-old Silicon Valley tradition of reinventing the very thing that your company once set out to conquer when it launched a linear TV channel in France. “Instead of choosing what to watch, you just want to start watching,” the company wrote in a blog post that stopped just short of congratulating itself for inventing the very concept of capturing moving images on film.
Anyway, that’s enough of the past. It’s time to find out what horrors might – but almost definitely won’t – befall us in 2021. Things couldn’t get any worse, right?
Elizabeth Holmes breaks her post-Theranos silence with the news that she has developed a fancy-looking box that can detect whether you have Covid-19 by analysing your aura. In a final hurrah before leaving the White House, the Trump administration orders one to be installed in every single Starbucks in the US.
The team at OpenAI reveal that it has been four years since it replaced Mark Zuckerberg’s brain with the latest version of its artificially intelligent text generating bot, GPT-4. With that knowledge, Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolutions suddenly make a lot of sense.
Reports start trickling in that former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann has been going door-to-door in Milton Keynes convincing people working from home to sell their garden sheds to him so he can fit them with Nespresso machines before renting them back to their previous owners. WeShed evangelists swear that working alone in their unheated sheds is worth the exorbitant monthly fees because of what they describe as the “WeShed community”.
After a year of complaining that televised briefings are “so 2019”, Dominic Cummings remerges and convinces the government to switch to Substack for its regular updates on the coronavirus pandemic. Announcing the newsletter’s launch on Sky News, Matt “there’s an app for that” Hancock breaks down in tears of joy.
Ofice workers returning to work for the first time in months realise that they have forgotten the art of making small talk with their colleagues. Without the excuse of a poor internet connection or being able to recourse to “you’re on mute” office kitchens across the UK are filled with a stunned silence. Deloitte makes a fortune running small talk workshops while employees have to be constantly reminded that pyjamas are no longer appropriate work attire.
Undeterred by the failure of Quibi, SoftBank invests £3 billion in an ultra-short video platform specialising in content less than one second long. Its debut series is called The Man With the Wooden Shoe and consists of six half-second episodes about a Danish cobbler who embarks on a decades-long quest to reconnect with an old flame after a surprising discovery in his loft reveals a dark family secret. Jon Hamm wins an Emmy for his starring role. Two weeks later the platform goes bust.
Google expands its autocomplete function so it can fully respond to and send emails on your behalf. Gmail insults your boss, rekindles your estranged relationship with your mother and sends an inquiry to an estate agent about a one-bedroom flat in Reykjavik with views across the North Atlantic. On balance, you decide you prefer this new Gmail-enabled version of your life to your old one.
Elon Musk starts selling his own sweat in bottles. Costing £1,500 per millilitre, the SpaceX CEO calls the concoction “Musk”. An unnamed member of the WIRED editorial team is the only customer.
Astronauts finally pinpoint the source of an air leak on the International Space Station that has been troubling Nasa and Roscosmos for years. It becomes apparent that the leak was triggered by British astronaut Tim Peak who accidentally pierced the shell of the ISS in 2015 while slicing open a bagel he had smuggled on board. Peake’s botched attempt to plug the gap using Post-It notes ends up costing several million dollars and causing a deep rift in international scientific collaboration.
A year after solving one of biology’s greatest challenges, predicting the 3D structure of proteins, DeepMind announces that it has failed to conquer one of science’s remaining great challenges: modelling why headphone cables manage to naturally form themselves into the most intractable tangles. Dejected, the researchers get back to more achievable goals, such as solving general artificial intelligence.
As winter draws in, Netflix releases a sumptuously-shot six part series about a young orphan with a preternatural talent for mastering difficult board games. Despite high hopes, The Connect Four Conundrum fails to spark enthusiasm among audiences. Netflix executives exchange nervous glances as they examine their slate of board game-inspired releases for the next five years.
In an unsettling turn of events, December passes without any major global incident. People are so accustomed to being in a state of near-constant panic that everyone is seriously weirded-out by this new state of calm. There is widespread relief when on January 1, 2022 it becomes clear that an asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth and the existential panic can resume as scheduled.
Matt Reynolds is WIRED’s science editor. He tweets from @mattsreynolds1
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