Featured Article: 2020’s Big Tech Story Round-Up

As 2020 draws to a close, here is look back on some of the biggest tech stories and issues in the year that was dominated by the effects of a global pandemic.

Disastrous

The shocking death toll and infection rates, the lockdowns, hardship, and job losses for large numbers of the population, huge pressure on the health service, massive impact on the hospitality sector, and the loss of well-known high street giants were just some of the terrible effects of a COVID-19 pandemic that made the news here in the UK.  Although the technology sector has also been affected, technology has generally emerged as a way to help us deal with, adapt to, and carry on through a year dogged by serious challenges.  Here are just some of the big business tech news stories of this most different of years.

Windows 7, Huawei Danger and Apple’s Batterygate
Microsoft’s support for its Windows 7 Operating system and Windows Server 2008 ended on 14 January as part of a final push to move users over to the SaaS Windows 10 OS. Only two weeks after the official end of support date, pressure from die-hard and disgruntled Windows 7 users appeared to force Microsoft to issue a second ‘afterlife’ update to its old Windows 7 Operating System for extended security updates (ESU) users.  For most businesses, however, this meant that it was truly time to commit to Windows 10.

Also, the Trump-administration-led warnings and sanctions relating to a possible security threat posed by Huawei equipment being used in 5G networks, due to the alleged close links of the company with the Chinese state reached a head in the summer.  In July, for example, after more U.S. pressure, the UK government finally decided to remove all Huawei kit from the UK’s 5G network by 2027 and banned all UK mobile providers from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December 2020. For big 5G kit supplying businesses like Nokia and Ericsson, this sounded like good news but for most other UK businesses this sounded like it could add a couple of years on to how long it would be until a well-developed 5G network was available across the UK.

The year also saw the culmination of Apple’s ‘Batterygate’ scandal as in February, the French competition and fraud watchdog DGCCRF fined Apple €25 million (£21 million) for slowing down some old iPhones and not telling people how to fix the problem and in November, Apple agreed to pay $113m (£85m) to affected iPhone owners in order to finally put an end to the scandal. For Apple phone users, the whole scandal eroded some trust in what had always been a trusted and innovative brand.

Working From Home, Scam Danger, and Zoom Growth

With the national lockdown starting in March came the need to work from home. This led to announcements of office closures by the big tech companies.  For example, Google announced the temporary closure of its Dublin office with 8,000 employees to work from home, and Facebook closed its 3 London offices with all 3,000 employees from those offices also being asked to work from home.  Although this created some big challenges, on the plus side, the nature of many tech industry jobs meant that working from home has been more possible than for many other industries, and for the UK, a 2019 CIPD Job Quality Index survey reported that 54% of the UK’s workforce works flexibly.

In April it was reported that cybercriminals were trying to exploit the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the mass working from home as Google reported more than 240 million COVID-related daily spam messages and having to block more than 100 million phishing emails each day.  For businesses, this meant that an increase in cybersecurity was needed.  As the situation worsened, this also meant that business continuity plans and disaster recovery plans suddenly became all-too relevant to many businesses.

The need for videoconferencing so that the remote workforce could communicate effectively led to a huge boost in user numbers for platforms like Zoom.  For example, by Q3, Zoom said that it had increased its number of customers with more than 10 employees by 485 per cent on the previous year. The need for businesses to operate effectively with a remote workforce also led to surges in demand and fierce competition between other video conferencing apps and collaborative working platforms such as Microsoft Teams (reporting a 12 million user boost in one week in March), Slack, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.  For the big tech companies, this meant profit and market share boosts and for many business users, this meant the need to adapt but in a way that allowed them to move forward effectively through the crisis. 

Remote working has also boosted spending on the public cloud and particularly desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) through 2020.  As businesses have also now realised the benefits of using the cloud e.g., cost, scale, flexibility, and deferred spending advantages, many look likely to committing more to the cloud going forward as they and the economy try to recover at a time when spending on IT needs to bring maximum value and take account of the new world situation.

Test and Trace Apps, Virtual Events, Accelerated Digital Transformation, and the Acceleration to Cashless

After the trial of a costly centralised Test and Trace app in the summer on the Isle of Wight, it was discovered that the app had issues with Apple’s iPhone models and was, disappointingly, abandoned. This meant that another NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app was later launched in England and Wales in September using Google’s and Apple’s decentralised technology (APIs) and Bluetooth technology. Around the world, track/test/trace apps have offered one way to help contain the spread of the virus although low download numbers have made them less effective in many countries.

London Tech Week in September this year was an example of a how complex events can now be successfully held in a fully virtual way thereby enabling businesses to showcase their innovative products and gain more data about attendees.

Another big tech story in 2020 has been how digital transformation in businesses has been accelerated by the challenges posed by the pandemic. For example, whereas challenges to digital transformation projects can be changes in scope, reduced budgets, and changes in team structures, the need to ensure that employees could work from home this year revealed IT issues that may not otherwise have been addressed, thereby helping the business to modernise and realise which areas needed investment going forward.

Although a move towards a cashless society was already underway prior to the pandemic, most people having to pay using a contactless card in shops, digital/mobile and online payments have accelerated the move towards a cashless society.  For example, a Nationwide Building Society survey showed that the average respondent had gone over six weeks without using cash and that the lockdown led to 27 per cent of respondents using mobile payments and 25 per cent using online or mobile banking for the first time.  The closing of many non-essential shops also meant that 75 per cent of older Nationwide customers (those over 55) reduced their cash usage during the lockdown. Looking ahead beyond the pandemic, this could mean that businesses can expect (and will have to cater to) a growing preference by customers to use contactless, digital, and online payments.

US Election, Vaccine Hacks and Changing Shopping Patterns

 The election of Joe Biden as U.S. President was very big news globally and may mean that the trade war with China championed by former President Trump could become less hostile with fewer sanctions.  This could have knock-on benefits for China’s tech industry e.g., chips for phones, as well as perhaps allowing more companies to reduce the costs of products and services by dealing with Chinese suppliers.

The race to develop a vaccine has seen online espionage and state-sponsored hacks on drug companies making the news. For example, UK drug company AstraZeneca has been targeted recently by suspected North Korean hackers (most likely the ‘Zinc’ group) thought to be looking for COVID vaccine secrets. Getting effective vaccines approved and into the population of many countries is a vital step in enabling businesses to have a chance of finding more stability and making a recovery and, therefore, attacks on vaccine-makers are clearly a real cause for concern. 

The catastrophic effects of COVID restrictions on high street retailing and hospitality have led to a change in consumer shopping behaviour which has been particularly highlighted in this festive season. Back in July for example, a survey by Alvarez & Marsal and Retail Economics predicted that 25 per cent of the UK’s population plan to make permanent changes to the way they shop in favour of online shopping (particularly mobile apps), fuelled by a rise in the use of online supermarket shops. Businesses generally with a strong online presence and strategy, coupled with the right delivery network have been well-positioned to survive and perhaps profit during 2020. Online sales giant Amazon, for example, showed a massive 37 per cent sales growth year-on-year in Q3 of 2020, from $70 billion in 2019 to $96.1 billion.  It is thought (although the figures are not yet available) that there has also been a vast increase in sales for the fourth quarter which includes Black Friday and the Christmas period.  It is no accident that back in July, it was announced that with a boost from the pandemic, Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos had become the richest man in the world with an estimated £137bn fortune.

The End of 2020

2020 has been an extremely challenging year for businesses. Necessity, however, has proven to be a driver of digital transformation for many businesses and technology has provided some way forward past many of the physical limitations that became apparent with the arrival of a disease that has severely limited and damaged global economies. It is still unlikely that businesses will be able to make many serious leaps forward until at least spring and with countries now refusing entry from the UK, new mutations of the virus taking hold, and Brexit negotiations still not competed with a deal (at the time of writing this article), technology will be something that we continue to rely upon for more aspects of business and daily life going forward through 2021.

Microsoft’s New Password Manager Works Across Multiple Devices and Browsers

Microsoft has announced that its new Authenticator App will also work as a password manager which will allow passwords to be synced across desktop and mobile devices (iOS and Android) as well as Edge and Google Chrome browsers.

Free Authenticator

The free Microsoft Authenticator app is currently only available as a public preview version in Microsoft accounts (MSA) but not for Azure AD-based work or school accounts. Users will also need to enable Authenticator as the default autofill by going to the settings of a device (iOS or Android).

Security and Convenience

The Authenticator app is designed to allow users to autofill strong passwords without having to remember them, thereby improving security, and to sync passwords across devices to allow users the convenience of seamlessly auto-filling passwords as they move across devices.  These passwords are synced using Microsoft account (outlook.com, hotmail.com, live.com, etc.), which means that they are also available on the user’s desktop with Microsoft Edge and the new Google Chrome extension.

Rumours

Back in January, prior to the pandemic, there were rumours that Microsoft was planning to launch a new consumer/home-focused edition of Office 365 in the spring called “Life” and that this edition was to include a full password manager. The pandemic appears to have put this idea on hold.

Changed Password Policy

Back in April last year, Microsoft indicated that it was moving away from policies that enforced periodic password changes on users of Windows systems following scientific research which called into question the value of many long-standing password-security practices and highlighted better alternatives e.g., enforcing banned-password lists (like Azure AD password protection) and multi-factor authentication.

Password Managers

Even though the Microsoft Authenticator works as a password manager, there are, of course, other password managers available many of which are already being used by businesses and consumers.  These include Keeper (good for cross-platform uses), LastPass, Dashlane, and LogMeOnce.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Most businesses know that strong passwords and multi-factor authentication are important to help maintain security but that constantly having to update passwords to strong versions that aren’t easy to remember can be annoying, disruptive and can waste time at important moments. Also, using multiple devices can mean that a password change on one where there is no syncing means problems logging in and/or having to change the login again on another device. Having a tool like the free Microsoft Authenticator app’s built-in, cross-platform password manager that syncs across devices could therefore offer considerable convenience as well as the obvious security benefits to businesses although it appears that it is not fully available yet. Although there are many good password managers available, it should be remembered that the general move in authentication is towards biometrics e.g., fingerprints and that as this is introduced for more products and services it will provide an even safer and more convenient way of managing login security going forward.

Voice and Video Calls For WhatsApp Next Year

It has been reported that Facebook’s WhatsApp will be introducing voice and video calling to its WhatsApp Web desktop version next year.

Pandemic Boosted Demand

WhatsApp, which has around 2 billion users globally, is currently used mainly for personal calls in addition to text chat, sending videos and photos. The need for businesses to enable employees to work from home plus the other COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on the wider population has given a massive boost to video conferencing / video communication platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Skype. 

So far, WhatsApp has rolled out the new voice and video calls feature to some desktop users on a trial basis over the Christmas period.

Competition

The pandemic restrictions have fuelled fierce competition for market share among the big players and have led to new features being added to their respective platforms on a more regular basis.  Giving voice and video calling features to WhatsApp (desktop) would, therefore, give Facebook another way to compete and grab market share, along with its newly launched desktop Messenger app for macOS and Windows which also offers free group video calls and chat.

The business video conference market is particularly important to the big tech companies and this move by WhatsApp is likely to be particularly valued by business users.  WhatsApp claims to have more than 50 million more business users each month.

Time Limits Scrapped For Christmas

Zoom and Google Meet have both announced that their normal time limits on conversations are being lifted for the festive period and in the case of Google Meet, its 60-minute time limit will not apply again until the end of March.

Self-Destruct Messages

Back in November, WhatsApp took another competitive step in the battle for market share by adding self-destruct messages as a way of integrating and improving the interoperability of WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger. The feature gives WhatsApp users the option to automatically delete chats between themselves and the recipient after 7 days.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Many businesses already use WhatsApp and value the fact(s) that it is free, effective, widely used by other businesses and customers, offers security thanks to end-to-end encryption and that it allows the easy sending of videos and photos as well as instant chats.  The ongoing pandemic, working from home and the danger and restrictions which, it appears, will be with us for many months yet have made the market for video conferencing highly competitive.  This move by Facebook’s WhatsApp is likely, therefore, to be appealing to WhatsApp’s billions of users and particularly the millions of business users who are turning to the app each day for all manner of communications.  This is likely to strengthen loyalty to WhatsApp and help Facebook to grab yet more market share.

Personal Data Security Given Low Priority By Christmas Online Shoppers

A survey commissioned by PCI Pal® shows that Christmas online shoppers appear to be more concerned about prices and the speed and cost of deliveries than the security of their personal data.

Priority Ranking

The survey asked 2,002 online shopper adults aged 18-65 in the UK to rank purchase factors such as the price of goods, cost of delivery, and online security in order of priority when making purchases.

Online Security Fifth

The survey showed that online security only ranked fifth overall in order of priority to online shoppers with a measly 6 per cent of 35-44 year-olds and 8 per cent of 18-34 year-olds citing it as a priority. This is particularly surprising at a time of year when cybercriminals are particularly active and when the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is launching its first-ever TV ads as part of a major campaign called Cyber Aware.  If last Christmas is anything to go by, there was an average loss of £775 per incident from online shopping fraud (NCSC figures) with 17,405 reports of online shopping fraud, reporting a loss of £13.5m from November 2019 to end of January 2020.

Price Top

According to the survey, shoppers were most concerned about the price of goods which came top of the list of, with 40 per cent of 45-54 year-olds. This was shown to be of lesser importance to mainly less price-sensitive retired buyers in the survey (28 per cent).

Delivery Factors Next

Ranked second and third most important in the online shopping survey were the cost of delivery and speed of delivery. This is perhaps not surprising given the time of year.

Change In Shopping Habits

Another 2000 UK consumer survey from the same source revealed a shift in festive shopping behaviour in favour of online instead of in-store, because of the effects of the pandemic.  For example, whereas 30 per cent said they would normally shop in-store, only 17 per cent have done this most frequently in recent months with 64 per cent now favouring online shopping and 9 per cent opting for mobile apps for shopping.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

At a time when we should be most protective of our personal details and most vigilant about potential online fraud and scams, it is surprising that online security has been given such a low priority among shoppers in this survey. It is perhaps not surprising that price is important (as always) or that delivery details are playing such an important part with Christmas as a deadline.  The additional survey which reveals a shift in shopping habits and particularly towards mobile apps simply reflects how much of work, communications and shopping habits have been forced to be carried out online due to the pandemic. Those businesses that have invested their online shopping platforms and delivery networks are likely to have benefitted most during the lockdowns and restrictions and with an uncertain future, more waves and more virus mutations taking hold, online shopping is likely to be a preferred and regular choice for many consumers, thereby forcing many businesses to commit much more to online selling where possible and to think of new and innovative ways to adapt to the changing retail conditions.

Tech Tip – Stop Videos From Automatically Playing

In Windows 10, using Microsoft Edge, here’s how you can block annoying autoplay ads and videos on a web page:

– Click on the 3 dots (top right) and select ‘Settings’.

– Select ‘Cookies and site permissions’ (middle of the left-hand menu).

– Scroll down to ‘Media Autoplay’ and set to ‘Limit’.

– Refresh the page to see changes.

Featured Article: How To Stay Safe This Christmas

With Christmas just around the corner here are some suggestions for how you and your loved ones can stay safe online over this festive period and beyond.

The Shift Online

The pandemic has prompted a huge shift online this year for work and now, with the second wave in full flight, for online shopping.  Back in June, an Alvarez & Marsal and Retail Economics survey showed that 17.2 million British consumers (25 per cent of the population) were planning to make permanent changes to the way they shop i.e., by shopping more online.  This Christmas, this trend is now becoming a reality as online sales surge as well as an extra forecast surge of online purchases on Christmas Day as soon as retailers lower prices on Christmas Eve.

It is no surprise therefore that the Christmas spending period of November and December is a favourite time of year of fraudsters, many of whom may already have cashed in with COVID-19 scams earlier in the year e.g., fake investment, test and trace, PayPal email and vaccine scams.

With all these potential threats around, here are some suggestions for how you and your loved ones can stay safe.

General Tips

Before going online shopping, make sure that you have:

– An updated, latest version of your operating system.

– An updated version of anti-virus software.

Online Shopping Tips

– Be wary of links to offers in emails as these could re-direct to phishing pages. Similarly, beware of unexpected emails, texts or posts suggesting clicking on a link or attachment, or potentially fake parcel firm delivery messages which may contain harmful attachments.

– Beware of any phone calls/voicemails/SMS messages purporting to be from banks or well-known retailers regarding purchases or requesting personal details/confirmation of account details.

– Research retailers online that you are unfamiliar with and take extra time to browse the website to make sure that it appears legitimate and trustworthy.

– Check that payment pages have HTTPS at the beginning, there is a closed padlock in the address bar, and that everything looks right.

– If setting passwords as part of an online account/purchase process, use a strong password that you haven’t used elsewhere, use 2-step verification, and consider using a reputable password manager e.g., LastPass.

– Consider paying by credit card as this offers more protection, even from fraud, and (unlike a debit card) doesn’t give any details related to your bank account. As a secure intermediary, PayPal is also a secure way to pay that doesn’t give card numbers that can be stolen and used elsewhere.

– Log out of your account after paying on a website as simply closing the page may not do so.

– If giving event/holiday tickets for next year as a gift, make sure that you are buying from official online outlets such as box offices, sports clubs, reputable fan ticket exchange sites, and travel agents/tour operators with an ABTA/ATOL number and checkable information and independent reviews.

– Check to ensure that you are not purchasing fake/counterfeit goods online e.g., via an unfamiliar eBay store, as these could pose risks to health and home.

– Only download any new apps from official, legitimate sources e.g., Apple’s App Store, Google Play, or Microsoft Store.

Devices and Gadgets

Many (smart) gadgets and devices and IoT items are given as gifts at Christmas.  These could include fitness watches, toys, and household as well as computer devices. Some of the ways you can minimise security risks include:

– Changing any default password on new gadgets/devices to your own, individual, more secure password (that you haven’t used anywhere else).  This is because many smart gadgets and devices come with the same default password that may already be known to cybercriminals or may a simple password that is easy to crack.

– Make sure that any new phones, tablets, and computers are protected by a security app/software and a PIN or passcode as soon as they are switched on.

Children

Christmas is a particularly special time of year for children, many of whom will either receive a tech gift or will be using technology for entertainment and communications, and who may be out of sight for longer periods of time while the adults are involved in other Christmas activities. Ways to help keep children safe and happy online and when using gadgets and tech games over Christmas include:

– Setting up parental controls on Wi-Fi and making sure that inappropriate or adult content is blocked and time limits for usage are set.  See https://www.internetmatters.org/parental-controls/broadband-mobile/.

– Setting agreed boundaries and ground rules in advance e.g., for screen time, number of games, and to ensure that any phones or tablets stay out of the bedroom overnight to charge.

– If children receive games for Christmas, play the game with them to be more aware of the benefits and the risks.

– Ask for access to any games and apps that children are on and ask them to allow you access to the phone.

– If online games appear to use Adobe Flash, consider disabling it because there are now several security concerns about it.

– If you have purchased a console, smartphone, or tablet for Christmas for your child, make sure that it is set up with the right control settings, and is charged and ready to use before you wrap it up. 

– Make sure that you have seen and dealt with any settings for e.g., online searching or “in-app” purchases.

Parents can find more helpful advice about apps, games (TikTok, Roblox) social media and more from Netaware https://www.net-aware.org.uk/ or Common Sense Media https://www.commonsensemedia.org/.

Happy Christmas

You may already be using many of these suggestions and a good helping of common sense as part of your online routines. In order to make sure that you have a happy Christmas in the online world, therefore, the message is to be prepared and always check and take a minute before clicking.

IR35 Tax Status Checker Tool Problems For 20 Per Cent of Users

Doubt has again been cast on the effectiveness of HMRC’s IR35 tax status checker tool after news that it failed to provide a response in nearly 20 per cent of cases.

IR35

The IR35 tax reform legislation that is designed to stop tax avoidance from ‘disguised employment’, which occurs when self-employed contractors set up their own limited company to pay themselves through dividends (which are not subject to National Insurance), and through deliberate misclassification of themselves.  From April next year, medium-to-larger private sector organisations will be made responsible for determining whether their non-permanent contractors and freelancers should be taxed in the same way as permanent employees (inside IR35) or as off-payroll workers (outside IR35), based upon the work they do and how it is performed. The responsibility for determining whether contactors are inside or outside of the legislation currently lies with the contractors themselves.

The legislation changes next year will mean that the tax liability will be transferred from the contractor to the company that directly engages the contractor.

CEST – The Tax Status Checker Tool

The Check Employment Status for Tax (CEST) service was introduced by HMRC in 2017 to help employers, hirers, and workers to determine the employment status of workers and to ensure the correct tax and national insurance is paid for the work being done.

In 2019 HMRC tried to enhance the online CEST tool to improve the service.  The online tool, available here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/check-employment-status-for-tax asks the user a series of multiple-choice, checkbox-answer questions and delivers a decision based on the answers given about whether the off-payroll working rules (IR35) apply to a contractor (inside or outside the IR35 legislation) or if some work needs to be classed as employment or self-employment for tax purposes.

Inconclusive

HMRC figures show that tool was used 975,416 times during the 12 months to 24 November 2020 to determine the IR35 tax status of contractors but, in 19 per cent of cases (188,719), the tool was unable to return a conclusive response.

Problems Back In 2018

The CERT tax tool had similar problems back in August 2018 when it was found to be getting the wrong result in almost half of cases.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If HRMRC itself cannot reliably use its own tax calculation tool to give an answer to users in 20 per cent of cases,  =many people will feel very frustrated at its apparent unreliability and if the official tool cannot help, what chance would many contractors have themselves of working it out by having to study complicated tax rules and regulations? This news comes at a bad time for already hard-hit medium-to-larger private sector organisations that will soon have the responsibility for correctly determining the tax status of contractors shifted onto them, and who may need help (such as using the CERT tool) in doing this. HMRC, however, does advise those who are not able to get a decision via the tool to contact them for help, but it is important for contractors to know where they are as soon as possible as regards their tax status to avoid potentially facing a large tax liability due to wrong decisions or delays caused by indecision or inconclusive results.

Hyundai Buying Robot Company

South Korean car manufacturer, Hyundai Motor Group, has agreed to buy a controlling stake in robot maker Boston Dynamics.

Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, which is currently owned by Tokyo-based multinational conglomerate holding company Softbank Group Corp., is an American engineering and robotics design company founded in 1992 as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company was sold to Google in 2013 and then to SoftBank in 2017. Boston Dynamics describes itself as “a world leader in mobile robots” and is famous for making robots with legs that give them mobility and dexterity.

The Deal

The new deal will see the Hyundai Motor Group and its chief take a combined 80 per cent stake in Boston Dynamics, while Softbank will retain only 20 per cent. The split on the Hyundai side will be 60 per cent to Hyundai Motor and its affiliates Hyundai Mobis, and Hyundai Glovis, and 20 per cent to its chairman, Euisun Chung.

Why Buy?

Hyundai Motor Group and its chairman are purchasing a controlling stake in Boston Dynamics because they want to:

– Gain an advantage over competitors in an innovation race among car companies.  For example, Ford Motor partnered with walking robot maker Agility Robotics last year (as well as leasing two ‘spot’ robots from Robot Dynamics last summer).

– Leverage robot technology to expand automation at its unionised vehicle factories and to help it to improve its design of new products like autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars, drones, and delivery robots.

– Combat the threats by other tech-based players in the market such as Tesla and tech firms with ridesharing, self-driving, and other technologies. For example, Hyundai recently partnered with Uber on an electric air taxi development project.

– Make the transition and to re-position itself from a manufacturer to a broader mobility service provider as this is perceived to be the future for traditional vehicle manufacturers.

Challenge

Although some commentators see the turning around of Boston Dynamics from being a loss-making company ($103 million net loss for the year ending March 2020) to being commercially successful as a big potential challenge for Hyundai, others see buying into a robot company as more of a way to showcase what Hyundai is capable of doing.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Traditional car manufacturers are having to broaden their vision of what they are and what they can produce in order to leverage new technologies and fight off competition by news types of entrants to the mobility market. Although electric is a common thread for all going forward, there are now many opportunities for tech and other companies to become part of the future of mobility and transport as the world tries to use and combine different technologies to leave the negative aspects of fossil fuels and traditional congested and underperforming transport routes and systems behind.

Google’s DeepMind AI Makes Dramatic Breakthrough

Google’s DeepMind AI machine learning program has solved a genetic protein challenge, the result of will dramatically change biology and could bring many medical benefits.

The Challenge

Proteins are the building blocks of cells and, for more than half a century, scientists have been trying to find a way to accurately predict the 3D shape and the folds of protein structures from their amino-acid sequence.  This is because a protein’s function is intricately linked with its shape and, therefore, the ability to predict a protein’s structure is the key to the understanding of what it does and how it works. This area of study is called Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction (CASP).

Why?

Being able to do so will mean that the function of the thousands of ‘unsolved’ proteins in the human genome can be identified and disease-causing gene variations that differ between people can be better understood.  This could make it much faster for humans to develop medicines and treatments for more conditions, could have a huge impact on life sciences, and make it possible to study living things in new ways.

DeepMind AI

Google’s machine learning, AI network offshoot ‘DeepMind’ used a program called AlphaFold to beat 100 other teams trying to solve the same problem. The AlphaFold system achieved a median score of 92.4 GDT overall across all targets meaning that its predictions have an average error of only 1.6 Angstroms (the width of an atom).  The system was ‘trained’ using publicly available data consisting of around 170,000 protein structures from the protein data bank as well as large databases containing protein sequences of unknown structure.

The methods that have been closest to solving this long-running scientific challenge in recent years have been advanced X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) but DeepMind’s AlphaFold program produced results that took leading scientists in the field by surprise and were far ahead of those results by the nearest competing teams.

GameChanger

Andrei Lupas of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, who has been working on this same challenge for a decade, said: “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything”.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This is a huge success for Google and its DeepMind project and shows how concentrated power of AI can dramatically speed up the solving of problems that have eluded scientists for decades.  Not only is this a validation of Google’s AI efforts but also opens up opportunities for medical research and pharmaceutical companies, and could bring benefits to humanity in terms of being able to develop treatments for conditions that have offered little hope up until now. The pandemic has taught the world a powerful lesson in the importance of being able to develop fast ways of understanding new diseases and developing effective treatments and this is one area that DeepMind’s discovery could make a very positive contribution towards.

Tech Tip – Faster Startup

If your computer’s getting a little slow and you would like to save time by having a faster computer startup with Windows 10 by trimming down the number of programs that try to load on startup, here’s how:

– Go to Settings > Apps > Startup.

– Look at the list of programs, whether they’re enabled, and what impact each has on your startup time.

– Select the ‘off’ toggle position for those programs that you don’t need to load every time you start your computer e.g., the programs you don’t use often.