State leaders and officials in the technology sector saw growth in cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence and greater digital access among other advancements in 2021, and expect to see continued growth in those areas, in addition to data analytics, blockchain and other innovative technologies in 2022.
“It was a year of remarkable firsts,” said Douglas Hutchings, entrepreneur in residence for Innovate Arkansas at Winrock International. “Humans flew a helicopter on Mars, quantum computing had its first commercial offering, a monkey was able to play pong with its brain, and we started making non-fungible tokens for all sorts of stuff. Arkansas researchers and companies continue to contribute to efforts in power electronics, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and blockchain which touch each of these.”
Citing researchers such as Laurent Bellaiche and Alan Mantooth at the University of Arkansas, Hutchings also emphasized the progress made on quantum physics and compact electronics made to survive in harsh environments, as well as statewide efforts around artificial intelligence (AI).
“The 2021 Arkansas Bioinformatics Consortium focused on harnessing the state’s growing AI expertise to push the boundaries of rapid health diagnosis,” he added. “Likewise, the emerging policy and legal framework for all things blockchain is being advanced the Blockchain Center of Excellence with notable publications by Carol Goforth and others. The excitement around the pace of technology development can be felt by both Arkansas’ legacy companies and the bustling entrepreneurial community.”
In Fintech, questions continue to surround cryptocurrency and what it will ultimately look like in the future.
“When you look at Fintech space specifically, clearly we’re trying to wrestle the issue of cryptocurrency and this asset class as to what is it and how are we going to use it,” said Wayne Miller, executive director of the Venture Center. “It’s here to stay, I don’t think there’s any question about it. How it’s going to be ultimately regulated and accepted – whether or not the government decides to build its own through a stablecoin or if Bitcoin is the most prevalent – regardless, this is going to become part of our lives.”
And leaders continue to explore ways for technology such as smartphones to expand opportunities for those underserved by banks.
“As I talk to bankers today, if there’s 5,000 people in your community, you have the opportunity through digital platforms today to have 5,000 branches,” Miller said. “If you look at the folks who are underbanked, unbanked, areas that are less privileged or underserved, one of the things they have is a cellular device. So how can we begin to leverage this technology in a way that helps them build wealth?”
In 2022, leaders expect to see exploration into an array of technologies, including renewable energy.
“The energy landscape continues to evolve at a tremendous pace,” Hutchings said. “Not many realize that Arkansas has leading policies around distributed generation which has resulted in rapid adoption of technologies like solar. The coming years are likely going to see similar adoption of energy storage due largely to the rapid scaling of electric vehicles.”
Data analytics will continue to be a major focus, specifically around refined methods to collect and interpret data.
“From supply chain to bioinformatics, we are awash in reams of data. Understanding industry needs – all the way to the individual company-level – remains quite challenging,” said Bryan Barnhouse, chief executive officer for the Arkansas Research Alliance. “Developing tools to answer questions about how it’s collected, cleaned, assessed, protected, distributed, etc. will be with us for the rest of our natural lives.”
Blockchain technology is poised for broader application as well in the financial sector, according to Karl Schubert, professor of practice and associate director of the data science program at the University of Arkansas. Schubert said blockchain will have a “serious effect” in its ability to verify financial transactions at high speeds.
“I believe that instituting blockchain into this process is going to create a more secure international financial backbone, and I think that’s going to be huge,” he said.
Errin Stanger, director of Winrock International’s Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, expects to see a continued focus on artificial intelligence and 5G this year, in addition to an array of renewable energy technologies.
“In my opinion, I think we have just scratched the surface on AI but there are even more exciting developments around the corner,” she said. “I am also expecting continued growth around renewable energy. Energy-efficient buildings, electric cars and trucks, new technology on solar panels – the list could go on and on.”
While COVID-19 has disrupted the sector – just as it has nearly every other sector and industry – it’s also kicked technology development and adoption into a higher gear.
“A lot of technology we’re seeing coming into play – particularly touchless and wireless – those things have existed, but I think adoption was slow,” Miller said. “And the pandemic really forced adoption and increased it over 60 percent.”
COVID has also led to mainstreaming of remote work and greater digital equity in the state.
“Remote work and remote learning lead to enhanced cloud capabilities and a focus on connectivity,” Stanger said. “I have noticed a strong focus in Arkansas on Digital Equity. We saw wide gaps in connectivity when our schools switched to virtual, and many homes across our state did not have the infrastructure to support online learning. The dedication to improving this across the state has heightened in the last 12 months.”
“If ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ then a global healthcare crises is the ‘father who kicks discovery into high gear,’” Barnhouse said.
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